February 26

7 Things You Don't Know About The History Of Wine

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland flag icon
Reading time 7 min.

A lot of human history has been centered around the making and imbibing of wine, from religion to ritual to plain old drunkenness, but various cultures have managed to add some bizarre chapters to the history of wine.

Modern wine continues to produce its own legends; the famous fraud of trader Rudy Kurniawan in the 2010s, in which he operated a complex scam selling off poor wines disguised as high-end vintages and netted himself millions, is now wine folklore and the subject of a documentary (and it’d likely make an excellent film for wine buffs). Whether you’re the swill-and-sniff or the grab-and-glug type, though, there’s something in wine history for everybody, from the disgusting to the, well, slightly less disgusting.

1. Ancient Egyptian Corpses Had Their Insides Washed With Wine

Wine had a strong ritual role in the religion of ancient Egypt, and nowhere was that more obvious than in what they did for elite funerals. Not only was there a strong symbolic wine presence in burial sites (one, of the excellently named ruler Scorpion I, was discovered to have 700 wine jars, all of which would have been full when he was buried), for the dead person’s thirst, they also used wine to help “clean” the body after it was definitely, irredeemably dead.

Ancient Egyptians didn’t just focus their wine-making on grapes; they diversified into everything from figs to palms. And it was palm wine, which was particularly sweet and prized, that was used in the ritual of cleansing, according to Egyptologist Salima Ikram. After the famous process of pulling out the brain through the nostrils, she notes,

“next the flank is opened with a flint knife and the whole contents of the abdomen removed; the cavity is then thoroughly cleaned and washed out, firstly with palm wine and again with an infusion of ground spices. After that it is filled with pure myrrh, cassia, and every other aromatic substance, excepting frankincense, and sewn up again…”

This treatment was reserved for the most elite Egyptians, and cost the earth. Palm wine probably made the body smell a little bit sweeter, especially as there weren’t refrigerators back then.

2. The Mayans Used Wine Enemas To Communicate With The Dead

The Mayans had a particular kind of wine called pulque, made from fermented sap from a cactus, and the way they imbibed it was pretty intense. According to historical records, they gave it to themselves using enemas while visiting ritual caves that were viewed as portals to the dead; being heavily intoxicated by this method, they believed, would help them “communicate” with the spirits.

Unsurprisingly, the enemas often resulted in some pretty violent nausea, an element of the ritual that shows up in a lot of the Mayan images of the time. Vomit was apparently a desirable consequence of the emetic; the Mayans appeared to believe that pulque was cleansing, and that enemas and vomiting were a key part of the “purging” that you needed to get close to the afterlife.

3. Ancient Doctors Believed That Wine Became Blood

The ancient Greek physicians articulated a theory of the body and its liquids that held sway in Europe until the late Renaissance: the idea of the four humors, elements that needed to be “balanced” in the body to remain health. And in that was a big assumption about the role that wine played, namely that it could “transform into” blood as it entered your veins. So much for the water-into-wine trick; for hundreds of years, Europeans were convinced that, in the words of medieval French surgeon Henri de Mondeville, “good wine is the most appropriate food for generating blood, and consequently for generating flesh.”

The belief went generally that an insufficiency of blood could be made up by drinking wine, and that you could moderate blood levels by tapering off your wine consumption. Dark red wines were, for obvious reasons, viewed as particularly blood-replacing. Historian Jacques Jouanna notes that this turns up all across Hippocratic medicine, from encouraging wine consumption after a heavy nosebleed to using it for heart disorders.

4. Ancient Japan Used Sake Made From The Ritual Saliva Of Virgins

Sake, fermented rice wine, is now a fairly commonplace part of the wine world, but its origins in ancient Japan may be slightly less hygienic than would be currently accepted by health and safety laws. Rice starch had to be broken down in some way before it could be fermented appropriately by yeast and made into sake (the process is closer to beer than wine), and Japanese sake-makers found the perfect way to do it: human saliva.

Masticating people would take their rice and spit it into a pot, where the saliva would break down the rice. Scientist Hiroshi Kondo explains that the particular mouths that chewed the rice actually became a part of Shinto religious ritual:

“… only young virgins were allowed to chew the rice. These virgins were considered mediums of the gods, and the sake they produced was called bijinshu, or ‘beautiful woman sake.’ ”

The bijinshu process was particularly popular for weddings, and though it’s no longer mainstream practise, the wine historian Patrick McGovern says that in remote parts of Japan and Taiwan today, you can “still find women sitting around a large bowl, masticating and spitting rice juice… as they prepare the rice wine for a wedding ceremony.’

5. The Ancient Romans Viewed Certain Wines As Miraculous

The Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder delighted in collecting weird facts about everything that mattered to Romans, and it’s pretty indicative of their feelings about wine that a huge swathe of his Natural Histories is devoted to it. He talks about 50 different kinds of wine, elaborates on their different effects and how they’re made, and generally makes himself into a bit of a viticulture expert. The Romans loved wine, dispensing honeyed wines at public events to solicit support from citizens; an archaeological project in Italy in 2013 attempting to produce wines the “ancient way” was just following detailed Roman guides to the letter. But Romans didn’t just think of wine as one bulk product, or as merely something to get drunk: as Pliny explained, certain wines were regarded as having magical powers:

“There are some miraculous properties, too, in certain wines. It is said that in Arcadia there is a wine grown which is productive of fruitfulness in women, and of madness in men; while in Achaia, and more especially in the vicinity of Carynia, there is a wine which causes abortion; an effect which is equally produced if a woman in a state of pregnancy happens only to eat a grape of the vine from which it is grown, although in taste it is in no way different from ordinary grapes: again, it is confidently asserted that those who drink the wine of Trcezen never bear children. Thasos, it is said, produces two varieties of wine with quite opposite properties. By one kind sleep is produced, by the other it is prevented. There is also in the same island a vine known as the theriaca, the wine and grapes of which are a cure for the bites of serpents… On the other hand, there is in Lycia a certain grape which proves astringent to the stomach when relaxed. Egypt has a wine, too, known as “ecbolas,” which is productive of abortion.”

6. Medieval Doctors Used Wine For Everything From Migraines To Pregnancy

Throughout medieval Europe, wine was seen as a kind of universal pick-me-up. Beyond its use in helping to create blood, it was also a way to make virtually any medicine slip down more easily, and you can find it in remedies for almost anything. For wine-lovers, it sounds like a sticky paradise. For women wishing to conceive a boy, for instance, the Trotula, 12th-century Italian gynaecological texts, recommended that her husband drink wine mixed with dried rabbit womb and vagina, while she drinks wine with dried rabbit testicle. That’s a tasty evening in.

The advice was both external and internal, though. Wine is also found in medieval recipes for medicine concerning snake bites, cataracts, and headaches: a common remedy for migraines was to boil various herbs in wine, and then bathe the person’s head in the resulting mixture every night.

7. Wine Infused With Cocaine Was Endorsed By The Pope In The 1860s

We all know about the origins of cocaine in Coca-Cola, but in 1863 cocaine also crossed over into the world of wine. And with a splash, at that. The “tonic wine” Vin Mariani debuted on the European market as a cure for all your ills, and contained a charming mixture of red Bordeaux and ground-up coca leaves. It was a massive success, in part due to one of the world’s first celebrity-driven advertising campaigns.

Long before Charlize Theron fronted perfume, the savvy chemist behind the wine, Alberto Mariani, collected testimonials from the crowned heads of Europe (including Queen Victoria) and famous politicians. The wine’s greatest advocate, though, was Pope Leo XIII, who was such a fan that he gave Mariani a medal and allowed his image and praise to be used in the wine’s advertisements. Sales, understandably, soared. Mariani died in 1914 a millionaire.

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