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Was Homeric wine "sweet" or "pleasant"?

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Was Homeric wine "sweet" or "pleasant"?

Postby Paul Derouda » Thu Mar 13, 2014 1:15 pm

In early epic, wine is repeatedly called "sweet", ἡδύς, ἡδύποτος, γλυκερός etc.

Does this mean "sweet, sugary" or just more vaguely "pleasant to taste"? This has puzzled me a long time - I have looked in many places (at least the Homer Encyclopedia, Der Neue Pauly, Oxford Classical Dictionnary, many individual text commentaries etc. Chantraine says ἡδύς="doux", which is the technical French term for "sweet" wine, but I don't know he should be taken to the letter on this), and nobody in my knowledge has ventured a guess as to what Homeric wine tasted like. They just repeat the same stuff, that the Greeks mixed wine with water etc., but apparently nobody tries to explain these interesting epithets.

So, are you aware of any discussion of this? Thanks!
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Re: Was Homeric wine "sweet" or "pleasant"?

Postby Scribo » Thu Mar 13, 2014 4:29 pm

Yes actually, or rather I'm aware of chemical analyses of various amphorae from various periods of time trying to discern what the contents were. However even when we get "wine" its worth pointing out that amphorae were definitely re-used and sometimes for other products. There's also descriptions in the various texts on cookery but they're inevitably based on food and tend to use adjectives anyway so that's not what you want.

In essence, due to our proliferation of sugars and artificial sweeteners we probably have a much different idea of "sweet" than the ancient did. Even in modern times, most American chocolates taste bloody sour to me. So some wine will be sweetened by honey. Either way we shouldn't think of wine as our admirable modern substance of which I shall now proceed to heartily avail myself but something like Sangria. Mixed, occasionally spiced with things like mastiha, figs etc.

So to answer sort of sweet, not by our standards, nothing you could decant etc. People are keen to point out Retsina as a possible ancient Greek wine but there is no evidence of this whatsoever and indeed resinated wine seems to been from the Romans and anyway is far, far, away from what the classical Greeks had in mind. I figured I'd put that out there before the inevitable comment came.
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Re: Was Homeric wine "sweet" or "pleasant"?

Postby Qimmik » Thu Mar 13, 2014 6:17 pm

Figuring out ancient color perception is hard enough. The specifics of ancient taste sensation are surely irrecoverable.
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Re: Was Homeric wine "sweet" or "pleasant"?

Postby Paul Derouda » Thu Mar 13, 2014 8:19 pm

Yes, you are listing many good points. I also suppose that due to the nature of organic chemistry, the sugars from the amphorae are likely to be long gone, if they ever were there. I'm guessing that you can say if the amphora contained wine, but not whether the wine was sweet. I was basically wondering if someone who understands wine making could sort of make an educated guess what the wine might have tasted like. I mean the basic process must have been quiet simple; I think we know that they had trouble with stopping the fermentation process, so most wines probably went to 18% or whatever is the point where it stops naturally. Will there be sugars left in the wine at that point, that's the question.

Added honey, spices, figs of course mix things up, and taste is culture dependent. Some white wines that have actually next to no sugar are still perceived as sweet because their scent is flowery or fruity (i.e. they contain aromatic hydrocarbons whose smell we associate with sweet things, although the wine itself is dry. Much of what we call taste is actually scent). But these are typically expensive (=hard to make even today) wines. Still, there are clear cases: nobody would call the sort of highly tannic red wine we drink with a steak sweet, and likewise nobody would call a nice, sweet dessert wine dry.
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Re: Was Homeric wine "sweet" or "pleasant"?

Postby Qimmik » Thu Mar 13, 2014 9:13 pm

Wine descriptions are highly "subjective" even today. The bottle of white wine I bought last week was touted with all sorts of tantalizing epithets but turned out to be impotable. (I didn't pay a lot for it, which may have been part of the problem.) 2,700 year-old wine descriptions are even less reliable.

But would you expect Homeric heroes to drink anything less than full-bodied red wines? You wouldn't catch them drinking dry white wines any more than you would catch them eating vegetables or fish (except when circumstances reduced them to this unpalatable alternative), or anything other than roasted red meat, for that matter.
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Re: Was Homeric wine "sweet" or "pleasant"?

Postby Paul Derouda » Thu Mar 13, 2014 9:52 pm

Wine epithets can be subjective, but they don't need to be. Good wine professionals can describe wines with great consistency and they can recognise wines in blind tests. If a real wine expert says a wine has an aroma of vanilla, for instance, it probably means that the wine really has vanillin molecules - the same ones as in actual vanilla. The same thing goes with many other aromatic hydrocarbons. Expert wine tasting has a firm foundation in organic chemistry. Most of the time those epithets are just marketing, of course.

This has no bearing on the question wine making in antiquity, though. As to white wines vs. full-bodied red wines, I don't know if they had the same preconceptions as we do. That's just what I'm wondering. And I don't think they had such a range of choices. I suppose wine making was a lot simpler than it is today, and I thought maybe it's possible to have an educated guess whether their wines had sugar or not with our knowledge of organic chemistry, with the simple methods they must have used.
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Re: Was Homeric wine "sweet" or "pleasant"?

Postby Scribo » Thu Mar 13, 2014 9:56 pm

Well, quite, obviously meat was as much of a status symbol as a food stuff. I don't think we can take it as far as Bakker does in his latest book but this is an important part of the early mindset. So the Achaeans eating so much meat is basically "look how big and successful we are". Incidentally more meat makes sense in an Asia Minor context where we know consumption was higher than the mainland. Even more interestingly, the Mycenaeans were taller than the Classical Greeks partially due to diet - which included more meats.

Back to wine. I agree that we can't know what the wine was like exactly, the idea is to riff out of what we can safely speculate on. E.g lack of access to sugar is pretty important. However, I'd like to re-iterate that their oinon and our wine aren't necessarily the same. I pointed out how mixed theirs was, like a sloppy cordial almost, did you know they also added grated cheese? Like...w..t...f?

I think we can discuss, with relative safety, things like sweetness. I certainly wouldn't refer to anything as pleasant though!

Speaking of wine the stuff I'm drinking would be snobbed by most. Its cheap. Greek. From Euboia but...it has a sweetness (very sweet!) to it, a freshness reminiscent of something I can't quite place so I like it. It will never be served at the high table. But frankly I've been to many wine tastings and have no idea what the hell everyone is on about.

And now, drinking this, I'm remembering the feeling one gets walking into the old town of Nafplio. To actually hear the wind and feel the sea and the salt on your skin and see how...white and wide and clear everything is. And I'm in the bloody UK and its miserable and everyone is speaking English and now I'm very very sad. :lol:

Ah well. Well now I'm really tempted to get some red wine and grate some cheese into it...I will do this. For Textkit. For Science. For Philology.
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Re: Was Homeric wine "sweet" or "pleasant"?

Postby Paul Derouda » Thu Mar 13, 2014 10:03 pm

Scribo wrote:Ah well. Well now I'm really tempted to get some red wine and grate some cheese into it...I will do this. For Textkit. For Science. For Philology.

Don't forget the onion! And I think you ought to add some groats or something like that too.
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Re: Was Homeric wine "sweet" or "pleasant"?

Postby Qimmik » Thu Mar 13, 2014 11:01 pm

Yes, Nafplio is a wonderful place--the old fort on the hill, the fortified island in the harbor, the museum with a full set of Mycenean armor including a boar's-tusk helmet, cheap red wine, Greek tomatoes, grilled bream, tsipouro . . . Wish I were there, as we brace for snow on Sunday night.
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Re: Was Homeric wine "sweet" or "pleasant"?

Postby Scribo » Thu Mar 13, 2014 11:13 pm

I've never seen the kastro you know? how odd! but then I'm like that. God knows how long it took me to be bothered to see the Akropoli in Athens...

So I tried the wine with cheese! I know our wine is not analogous nor indeed our cheese but by the beard of Herakles that was a foul concoction. I drank wine with cheese in...it somehow added a rubbery, chalky, sensation. I tried eating the cheese gratings from the glass....slimey and near emetic. Ah I thought, something more contextual? I tried feta. Crumbled into the wine and either ruined it or made it distinctive in a...possibly nice way? not sure....can something be nice and near vomit inducing?

It is neither sweet nor pleasant, however!
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Re: Was Homeric wine "sweet" or "pleasant"?

Postby Qimmik » Fri Mar 14, 2014 2:10 am

ὑγιεια σου!
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Re: Was Homeric wine "sweet" or "pleasant"?

Postby mwh » Mon May 26, 2014 4:21 am

The short answer: yes.

hdus will mean just that it was enjoyable - a generic epithet for wine and the drinking thereof? glukeros (glukus etc.) should mean it was actually sweet, as distinct from bitter (or sour?). What made it sweet I can't say, but (without checking actual instances) I'd expect it to be a marked term.

My fondest (both hdistos and glukerwtatos) memory of Nafplio is eating grilled garides at the harbor with my girlfriend as an undergraduate. Never had better (neither gg nor gf).
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Re: Was Homeric wine "sweet" or "pleasant"?

Postby Paul Derouda » Sat May 31, 2014 10:45 pm

Thanks. I think you must be right, glukeros seems to be clearly the more marked one of the two terms and is much rarer in early Epic than hdus as an epithet of wine. Also, dictionary translations of hdus as "sweet" are a bit misleading. You also brought to my mind the fact that in my native language Finnish any water that is not saline is called "sweet" ("makea vesi").
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