Peloponnese: A land rich in grapes and vineyards

A journey through the history of wine-producing areas in Peloponnese

Viticulture and wine-making in Peloponnese are two of the earliest activities since antiquity. Ancient Greek mythology attests to the fact that wine was an integral part of people’s everyday life; it was related to the foundation of cities and the creation of myths, it was associated with gods and was of major importance in religious, burial, secular ceremonies and sports games.

There is an abundance of references in Homer’s Epic regarding the presence of wine in Mycenaean Age at the most important regions of Peloponnese, such as Mycenae, Epidaurus, Mantinia, Ancient Pylos and elsewhere. Besides, both appellations “Ambeloessa” and “Polystafylos”, literally meaning full of vineyards and rich in grapes, that were attributed to Peloponnese are Homeric.

Archaeological excavations, the analysis of primary sources of ancient Greek literature (writers and inscriptions) and the discovery of organic remains (grapestones) reveal the historical continuity of Peloponnesian vineyard; the beginnings of viticulture and wine-making, techniques and means of wine preservation, the history of grape varieties that survive to our days, the importance of wine-making in cultural life and the important role of wine in people’s daily lives; and this way we are provided with significant data about the history of Peloponnese.

  • Argolis

    The history of the vine in Argolida is very rich. A lot of information about vine and wine has been gained through excavations at different sites; in fact, “kraters”, the glasses used for wine in Mycenaean times are showcased at the greatest museums in the world.

    Finds of early Helladic ceramics at Lerna, Argolida contained grapestones indicating the coexistence of cultivated and wild vine varieties. The impression of a vine leaf on the base of an early Helladic vessel found at Synoro, Argolida is dated to the same era.

    Most indications for the use of wine originate from the Religious Center of Mycenae and are obviously associated with worship practices. Vessels dating back to 1250-1100 BC survive with traces of oil and wine. An amphora and a kylix found with traces of wine with resin are proof that the Mycenaeans knew about the “retsina” wine. They also added rue to that, as attested by traces in a pot that was found in a residence at the Acropolis of Mycenae in the first half of the 12th century BC.

    The most significant archaeological find from Mycenaean times is undoubtedly Nestor’s golden cup that was discovered by Heinrich Schliemann, in November 1876 during the excavations at Mycenae. The cup was found in grave ΙV of the grave circle A.
    In the Iliad there are references to Epidaurus as a place rich in vineyards (Iliad B561).

    Wine-growing and wine-making were continuous activities throughout all historical periods in Argolida, as shown by excavations around the town of Argos, and in written sources. Particularly during Venetian rule, wine production showed significant growth.

    In the 17th and 18th centuries, vineyards were cultivated both in Argos and Nafplion, as well as in the greater area. In 1668 Evliya Celebi mentions the existence of vineyards in the gardens of houses in Argos and forty types of grapes, as well as vines with juicy berries growing in the western districts of Nafplio. He estimated that the town counted 18,000 vines.

    This was not the case during the revolution of 1821, when the Turks systematically destroyed the vineyards at Nafplio.

    In modern history, the great reputation of wines from particular regions, such as Gymno, Malandreni, Didymo, and Ermioni, has been significant for local economy.

  • Arcadia

    The area of Mantinia in Arcadia has a long tradition in viticulture, which begins from ancient times, as attested by a plethora of archaeological finds that link the area with wine and the worship of god Dionysus. It is no coincidence that Pausanias’ vine (Vitis Vinifera) is believed to be the oldest vine in the world, dated about 3000 years ago.

    The area of Mantinia undoubtedly belongs to the most famous wine-producing regions in Greece since antiquity, thanks to its climate and the diversity of the Arcadian soil.

    Legend has it that this was Panas’ permanent residence (on Mount Mainalo). Panas was the faithful follower of god Dionysus, who stood out for his love for singing, dancing and feasting. Ancient Arcadians worshiped Panas the same way they worshipped Dionysus. Entertainment and wine have been interwoven over the centuries in this region.

    Homer describes Mantinia as “polyambelos”, i.e. abundant with vines. Pausanias also made special references to the area during his travel (Arcadic). Aristotle and Theophrastus refer to the wines of Arcadia, the famous “kapnios oinos” of antiquity, now called Moschofilero. The wine of Mantinia was known during Ottoman rule and in the 19th century it was supplied to Athens. The first Greek sparkling wine was produced here, from the aromatic Moschofilero.

  • Achaia

    Viticulture and wine-making have been known since antiquity in Achaia, as attested by ancient wine presses that were scattered in the area and were brought to light during excavations. An indicative find is a portable clay wine press discovered at Tsoukalaiika, outside of Patras, dated to the 4th century BC. Mosaics of the Roman era have also been found in many farmhouses in Patras. They featured Dionysian depictions, scenes from grape harvest, wine presses, and storage areas for wine and date from the 1st to the 3rd centuries AD.

    The wine tradition of Achaia continued through the Middle Ages with famous Danielis and her cellars.

    Since 1685 and for 30 years, Peloponnese was under Venetian rule, so efforts were made for its reorganization. Public land was shared, including vineyards, and taxes were collected.

    In the well-known description of Peloponnese by the Florentine doctor Alessandro Pini, in 1703, it is stated that all inhabitants of the Morea, old and young, men and women drank wine; and in order to maintain it for as long as possible, they mixed it with spruce resin which was left in barrels to melt. He also added that one of the most beautiful and fertile areas was that of Kalavrita and that Nezeros valley produced the best wine in Peloponnese.

    One of the most important events during Venetian rule was the attempt of the Venetians to set up a land registry in Moreas, so as to separate public from private land. The monastery of Agia Lavra at Kalavrita was among the most important vineyard owners mentioned in relevant documents.

    This was beneficial both the Venetians and for Peloponnesian wines, but when Moreas was occupied by the Turks in 1715, Venetian rule was over and the dark years of the Peloponnesian vineyard were about to begin.

    After the liberation from the Ottoman Empire, the wine history of Achaia was marked by the arrival of Bavarian Gustav Clauss in Patras in 1852. From 1861-1864, Clauss planted his first vineyards at Riganokampos a beautiful hill overlooking Patras. Then he built his famous winery, a true museum for wine culture holding a dominant position in the history of wine in Greece to our days. It would be no exaggeration to say that Clauss laid the foundations of modern wine production in Greece and contributed to the passage from rural household production of questionable quality to the modern era of high-quality winemaking.

    Clauss’ name along with the brand Achaia Clauss have been linked to the production of the sweet red wine Moudrodaphne (vin de liquer), which was launched in 1873.
    The product became famous in Germany and in the global wine market very quickly. At times it was considered equal to Port wines or even replaced them, already from the late 19th century and the early 20th.

    In modern times, Patras pioneers with Clauss and Achaia Clauss, while wine stores expand and wine-lovers can enjoy wine accompanied by cooked meals. In 1899, with a population of 35,000 people, Patras boasts 212 wine sellers (and 300 other beverage vendors) versus 210 grocery store owners.

  • Ilia

    The rich soil, of medium fertility in the lowlands and of low fertility in the highlands, has contributed to the development of viticulture from antiquity to our days at Ilia Prefecture. There have been many references to Ilia’s abundance of vineyards in ancient scriptures, while archaeological finds are linked with vines and the production of wine throughout the prefecture (see Minutes of the Scientific Conference “Oinon Istoro - History and Archaeology of Viticulture and Wine in NW Peloponnese”, publication by Mercouris Estate, Athens 2001).

    Archaeological excavations have also revealed and showcased several ancient presses, including an excellent example in the archaeological site of Ancient Olympia and other pieces of evidence indicating the importance of viticulture and wine making for the area during the course of history.

    The legend of Hercules' battle with the Centaurs on the plateau of Foloi is a well-known mythological reference which alludes to viticulture and the production of high quality wines in Ilia in antiquity. According to Pausanias, in the area of Pissa the cultivation of vineyards was systematic. n modern years, after Greece was liberated from Ottoman rule, vine cultivation developed alongside with raisin cultivation in Ilia. The same was for the entire North, West and Southwest Peloponnese and the Ionian islands of Zakynthos and Kefalonia, as there was great economic interest. Along with extensive raisin cultivation, the large wine-making units in the area (Wine and Spirits Company in Pyrgos, ASO Winery in various regions, Mercouris Winery at Korakochori Pyrgos, Dafaranos at Zacharo, etc.) produced considerable quantities of dry and sweet wine mostly, based on the locally cultivated varieties of Refosco, Mavrodaphne, Mavroudia, Roditis, Fileria etc. Part of this production was exported to Central Europe, France - at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries - and elsewhere.

    The most historic winery in the area is undoubtedly Mercouris Estate, which was established at the same time as Achaia Clauss in neighboring Achaia. This indicated the important role of the viticulture and wine industry in the economic development of the Western Peloponnese. The establishment of the estate dates back to 1864, when Theodoros Mercouris bought public land that was conceded for purchase. A few years later, the first Refosco vineyard was planted with cuttings imported from northern Italy (Friuli). In the late 19th century, the wine of the estate was exported to Europe. At the time, caiques moored at the small cove of the estate to load oak barrels filled with red wine that would be transferred to the port of Trieste. Today, this Estate of unique beauty hosts a modern winery and a museum showcasing important exhibits related to the modern history of Peloponnesian wine.

  • Corinthia

    Nemea has been the most significant wine producing area in Greece from antiquity to our days; it consists of two basins: Nemea basin, home to the remains of the temple of Zeus, and Agios Georgios basin, the so-called Phliasian plain of ancient Greece.
    The heart of the viticultural zone of Nemea, including the vineyards of 10 communities from the Municipality of Nemea, was called “Phliasia” in classical antiquity. Phliasian vines were cultivated here and yielded the Phliasion wine, which was also called the “blood of Hercules” (Antiphanes in Athenaeum).

    The city-state of Phlius minted coins featuring symbols of Dionysus, god of the vine and the wine. Besides, sources mention Phlias, a settler at the city-state, was said to be rich thanks to the vines his father Dionysus endowed to the region (Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 115-117). Phliasios wine was well-known to a wide, multinational audience of the time, who was gathered at the games of neighboring Nemea; these games were among the four well-known Panhellenic games of Greek antiquity (Olympia, Pithia, Isthmia, Nemea). Since the holy valley of Nemea (home to the majestic temple of Zeus of Nemea) was uninhabited during the "Holy feast of the Games of Nemea", where wine was abundant, they drank wine from the neighboring Phlius.
    [More specifically about cultivation, what we know from ancient sources about the three ways of vineyard planting - total excavation, trenches, pits/holes - has been eventually confirmed for Peloponnese, in terms of archaeology. The method of trench creation has been detected at excavated vineyards in the sanctuary of Zeus in Nemea, and in three cases in Kato Achaia. Of the eight known cases of ancient vineyards with trenches in the Eastern Mediterranean, four belong to Peloponnese (all of the 1st century BC)]

    The city of Phlius survived through Roman and early Christian ages. In the 13th century populations fled from the lowlands because of raids (Goths, Slavs), and the settlements were built on or around steep hills. The same happened with the inhabitants of Phliasia that gathered around and on the mountain of Polyfeggos which dominates the valley, and created two settlements: Upper Agios Georgios and Lower Agios Georgios.

    During Ottoman rule, Lower Agios Georgios evolved into a large village. In records from the years of Frankish, Ottoman and Venetian rule, it appears that Agios Georgios and the surrounding villages cultivated mostly cereals and vines. Wine was the predominant product because it was a source of wealth. It was only natural that at the time its name changed into Agiorgitiko wine, and the Phliasion vine was renamed into Agiorgitiko grape.

    When the first Local Government units of the Greek state were set up in 1834, two municipalities were created in this area: the municipality of Flious and the municipality of Nemea, with its seat at Agios Georgios. In 1840, when the first municipality mergers took place, the municipality of Flious was annexed to the municipality of Nemea and Agios Georgios was renamed into Nemea in 1923.

    The grape and the wine were still called Agiorgitiko, after the name of the old village. The wine from Agios Georgios "black, strong, the best wine of Morias", is mentioned in many foreign travel scriptures of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as in many Greek books (historical, geographic, folklore) of the 19th century. However, while the grape is still called Agiorgitiko, the wine, which had already begun to bear the name of the municipality since the mid-19th century, was called “Nemea” wine.

    Given the fact that the Phliasion plain of antiquity - i.e. the plateau of modern Nemea - was surrounded by towering mountains and there was a lack of roadways until 1960 that made communication difficult, and that the Agiorgitiko variety was not cultivated in any other region (in Greece or abroad) before the past 15 years, it is only fair to be considered an indigenous variety deeply rooted in time.

    28 centuries of history prove that the place name Nemea represents a historic terroir.

  • Laconia

    The only testimonies about viticulture in Laconia in Mycenaean times come from a residence at Menelaio, Sparta. The impression of a vine leaf survives on a clay seal that covered the opening of a pithos; the pithos was discovered along with Late Helladic III ceramics. A fragmented hand of a large statuette of the Late Helladic III period, possibly of a deity, also survives. The hand is holding part of a kylix, a vessel that is associated with wine on rare representations on vessels (Salavoura, Oinos, 74).

    As confirmed in ancient literature, Laconia was a site with an abundance of vineyards and wine. The well-known Spartan wine, was produced throughout the territory. The worship of Dionysus in Laconia and especially on Parnon confirms the existence of viticulture already since the archaic period. As stated by Professor G.A. Pikoulas during the study of relevant passages about the contribution of Spartans in Ancient Laconia (late 6th-early 5th century BC), the amount of wine making was an impressive 15,00,000-20,000,000 bottles of 0,75lt.

    Undoubtedly the most noteworthy wine of Laconia at the end of the Byzantine years, and a few centuries later, was produced in the area of Epidaurus Limira, where the unique castle of Monemvassia is located. This wine was known as Doric Wine, Monemvassia Wine, Vinum de Malvasia, Vinum de Monovasia, Vinum Malvasie, Vinum Monemvasie and Malvasia.

    The Greek Monemvassia-Malvasia dominated the foreign markets of the East and the West for five centuries: its production started in Byzantine Monemvassia before the 13th century. No other wine was that famous during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, no wine name has had such an interesting story ", writes Stavroula Kourakou-Dragona in her article in the newspaper KATHIMERINI, titled "Malvasia wine in the West”.

    It is a fact that Malvasia had been an imperial gift for centuries, while it was famous both in Byzantium and in the Royal Courts of medieval Europe. In Shakespeare's Richard the Third, is the monumental phrase, “Drown me in a barrel of Malmsey wine! (George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, in Shakespeare’s Richard III, 1592).

    The historical and political upheaval regarding the governing of Peloponnese that switched from Venetian to Ottoman rule, resulted to the production of Monemvassia wine falling into decline. Finally, after a decade of systematic study on the revival of this historical wine, during which cultivations and experimental vinifications took place, Malvasia was acknowledged a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) for sweet white wine from sun-dried grapes and liqueur wine from sun-dried grapes. This decision was published in the 1125th edition of the Government Gazette on 23 July 2010 (the 23rd July is also the anniversary of the liberation of Monemvasia by the Turks).

  • Messinia

    Viticulture in Messinia, just like in the rest of Greece, has been known since antiquity. Homer’s epics mention various regions of Messinia, attesting to the tradition of wine-production.

    In particular, the area of Methoni (old Pidassos) is described as abundant with vineyards. Homer also describes the banquet offered by Nestor, King of Pylos, to Telemachus and mentions that the guests drank wine in golden cups.

    Pausanias in his book On Messinia, mentioned the name of Mount Eva (today's Agios Vasileios), and noted that it was in Messinia that Dionysus and the women who followed him first exclaimed the expression “Ευοί-Ευάν” (cheers) after tasting local wine.

    Dionysian worship, with wine holding a leading role, was particularly well-known in Messinia. Dionysus, the deity of vine and wine, whose name appears twice on signs in Pylos, was not particularly liked by the ruling class. Wine dangerously shook the foundations and structures of palatial power. Dionysus and his worship did not seem to distinguish between aristocrats and common people; he opposed to any kind of despotic power and expressed the equality people coveted. Homer acknowledges the beneficial effect of moderate wine use, yet its abuse is criticized and considered to be dishonourable. The word “oenovares” (heavy with wine) attributed to Agamemnon is considered to be a serious insult.
    One of the kingdoms that were most honoured in the 10th and 13th century BC was Pylos and the palace of King Nestor. The excavations that took place on the hill of Ano Eglianos brought to light two large wine piths in the waiting room, while the next room was a food storage room with hundreds of kylikes on wooden shelves where oil and wine were stored.

    The vine and the wine are inextricably linked to the cultural, social and economic life of Messinia from antiquity to the present day. From the harbors of Kalamata, Koroni and Pylos, the main products of the area were exported: oil, wine, raisins.

  • Kefalonia

    Viticulture in Kefalonia dates back to antiquity. Kephalus settled at Athenian Land, colony of his homeland. Once he set foot on the island he planted the vine that he had with him to remind him of home. Over the course of time, “Athenian” became “Thinaea” and eventually it came to be known as Thinia, and the island itself was named Kefalonia, after Kephalus.

    In later times, the first written testimony about the cultivation of Robola was found in a document dated to 1520; it was an inventory of ecclesiastical property. In 1557, Italian traveller Pellegrino Brocardi recalled Robola, and praised the grapes and the wine produced from them.

    During Venetian rule, Mavrodaphne's features were particularly appreciated; this kind of wine was preferred because it was resistant to long transfers. Mavrodaphne was sought after and the Venetians imposed heavy taxes that led to the decline of its cultivation. Mavrodaphne reached its heyday when Dr. N. Piniatoros founded a wine-making company in April 1858. The company was bought by the English merchant Ernest Toole in 1872, who was well-known in the wine trade industry; he turned to foreign markets and Mavrodaphne was a huge success and was advertised as a type of Port wine.

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