What Was Wine Like in the Middle Ages?

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If you’re a long-time reader of the Xtrawine blog, you know that we’ve delved into the history of the Italian wine industry on multiple occasions. From talking about some of the most storied producers in the industry through to discussing discoveries of ancient wines from 6,000 years ago, we have a great interest in how wine has evolved over the years.

As you may have guessed, the wines from hundreds of years ago are nothing like the wines of today. The industry was also nothing like it is today back in the Middle Ages. During those times, wine production was a mostly local affair, with only a select few wines managing to gain any sort of national traction, never mind selling internationally.

That’s not to say that it didn’t happen of course. Like any commodity, wine has been traded between nations for eons.

What we’re saying is that there wasn’t a concerted effort to build an international industry hundreds of years ago.

This line of thinking led us to another topics. The wine industry has clearly evolved over the last 1,500 years or so.

What we want to know is how wines have evolved over the same time period.

In this article, we’re going to take a look at the wines of the Middle Ages and perhaps learn a little about how they’ve influenced the wines of today.

The Drinking Habits of People From the Middle Ages

Before digging into the topic of wines, we feel it’s important to establish just how different drinking habits were in the Middle Ages.

It was nothing like it is today. In today’s marketplace, you can get a cheap bottle of wine of decent quality without even thinking about it.

1,500 years ago, wine was not anywhere near as accessible. The average person may never have even gotten a drink of it during their entire lives. In fact, most relied on mead and ale to give them their alcoholic fix.

Wine was something that was reserved for the richest in society. Barring that, at various points during the Middle Ages it was also associated with the clergy and religion. In fact, some countries saw wine become the sole domain of the religious to the point that it wasn’t even commercially available.

Here’s the point we’re making. Wine was a much more valuable commodity in the Middle Ages than it is today.

Sure, a bottle of wine today will usually cost you a fair amount more than a bottle of beer might. However, it’s not something that’s inaccessible. Most can afford a decent wine, even if they can’t afford the most expensive bottles.

That’s something that wasn’t the case during the Middle Ages.

So What Did the Wine Taste Like?

The prevailing thought, and this is something that we’ve done ourselves, is that you can chart wine based on the civilisations that drank it. Greek wines led to the production of Roman wines, which influenced renaissance wines, and so on.

There’s a grain of truth to this, but it’s not entirely accurate. Wine production techniques have changed so much that you can’t call it an evolution.

The simple fact is that the wine of today is completely different to the wines you would have consumed during the Middle Ages.

In fact, if we were to hazard a guess, you’d probably hate the taste of a wine from the Middle Ages. Sure, it would contain alcohol. But that’s about the only similarity that it might have. Some historians even believe that the taste of earth and salt were as prominent in ancient wines as the fruitiness that you’d probably expect.

You also wouldn’t be able to preserve your wine for long either.

Modern production and storage methods have enabled us to preserve today’s wines for decades at a time, depending on the wine.

None of that existed in the Middle Ages. If you were going to drink wine, you had to drink it quickly. And if you wanted to preserve it, you’d have to add resin.

Of course, this resin would completely change the complexion of the wine. You’d end up with something that’s syrupy and thick, instead of the smooth wine that you’d expected.

Winemakers in the Middle Ages weren’t above adding extra ingredients into their wines to make them more enjoyable either. You’d rarely find a wine made purely using grapes. Usually, it would have various herbs, spices, and even marble dust inside.

That’s hardly the most appetising thought.

Then there’s the use of raisins to make some ancient wines. Like resin, raisins thickened the texture of ancient wines even more. Plus, they gave them a sweet taste that’s nothing like what you’d get from most wines today.

And let’s not even talk about oxidization. Unlike today’s wine producers, those in the Middle Ages actually encourages the oxidization of wine. They’d ferment their wines in open air, which naturally led to even more taste changes.

The Final Word

We’ve painted a bit of a disgusting picture of what a medieval wine might have tasted like.

So that leads us to an obvious question.

How could a drink that’s so horrible end up being romanticised in the way that it was during the Middle Ages?

To answer that, you have to understand that people didn’t drink wine with the same intentions back then.

Today, you’re looking to identify different flavours and notes. The wine’s taste is the only concern.

In the Middle Ages, wine was a sign of status. Drinking it placed you a cut above the general population.

More than that, every sort of alcohol of the time was also used as a way to drink without exposing yourself to the dangers of contaminated drinking water.

Couple all of that with a lack of understanding about the scientific aspects of the fermentation process and you have wines that wouldn’t be drinkable for the modern person.

We can only draw one conclusion from all of this:

We’re so happy to live in an age where wines are of the quality that they are today!

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