Wine Traditions are Not What We Think They Are

grape stompingIn the imaginations of most people in the wine world, wine is deeply embedded in tradition. Traditional wine regions in the old world remain a benchmark for what counts as wine quality. The best-known wine regions and many of the most respected producers trace their lineage back hundreds of years, and this history is a prominent feature of their reputation as well as their marketing materials  The fascination with stories about the origins of a wine and its rootedness in family traditions emerges from a shared understanding of the wine life and what it means. Long before there were armies of Instagram addicts looking for the next new wine fad, wine was rooted in local folkways and geography. It is difficult to think of a contemporary social practice more bound to tradition than wine.

But this respect for tradition is really about people and their cultural context. When it comes to the wine itself, it isn’t obvious that what we drink today is anything like what wine drinkers in the past were drinking.

This article in Wine Searcher is a fascinating read on what we know about the wines of the past.

When wine producers claim to make wine in the traditional way, which tradition do they have in mind? Until about 1000 years ago, wines were a blend of ingredients and used tree resin as a preservative:

Even as grape wine, per se – not mixed with other sugar sources – became more common as agriculture developed, aromatic tree resin was still added, usually from terebinth and pine, as well as exotic, imported frankincense and myrrh.  McGovern says that “almost every ancient sample that we’ve analyzed, dating as late as the Medieval period, has had a tree resin additive.

The Greeks and Romans diluted their wine with water, sometimes with sea water.

Drinking neat wine, unless it was an exceptional Falernian, was considered barbaric, and so one part wine was mixed with four or five parts water.

Of course, without climate control and modern storage containers, spoiled wine was probably the norm rather than the exception.

Even as we move into the modern era, wine still did not resemble contemporary wines. Domaine Romanée-Conti has kept records of their winemaking practices for 300 years.The modern practice of macerating red wines for 3 weeks to extract color, flavor and tannins is a relatively recent practice. Well into the 19th century, quality red wines were basically oxidized, over-oaked rosé

Contrast this to production methods in the 1800’s, where maceration times were only four or five days and aging in oak was for four or five years.  A four to five day maceration would extract most color, but little to no tannin, essentially creating a dark rosé. Aging a rosé in oak for four to five years should guarantee oxidation. Such a wine would be at high risk for perceptible volatile acidity levels as well; oxygen would enter through barrel pores over such a long period, slowly feeding acetic bacteria.

What we think of today as traditional wine-making is probably no more than 150 years old.

We talk about traditions; we don’t drink them.


  1. Dwight,

    Wasn’t resin like oak with it’s unanticipated seasoning side effects from barrels ? That is, a salutary side effect of sealing the clay amphora? Also, Dwight, Resin is definitely an acquired taste, and even though my Forebears apparently enjoyed it, I do not. And, interestingly, of late I find myself favoring wines with a minimum of oaky qualities.

    1. Tom,
      I think so. Since its use was so pervasive, they must have liked it.It charms escape me as well. I find myself staying away from oak as well. But I think it’s because there are so many new wine styles to explore that don’t use much overt oak rather than an aversion to it.

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