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F - 201 : Ariousios - The World's Finest Port?

Updated: Jan 30, 2022

Always wondered why people in antiquity mixed wine with water. Wine was not consumed undiluted as we drink it today. It was served during symposiums or bacchanalias, drinking parties with the purpose of getting drunk and bonding. If cheerful tipsiness was the goal, why diluting the beverage by a factor 3 and reduce the alcohol level to half of what we get from a beer? Makes getting drunk a pretty-time consuming affair.

A Greek Krater from 420 BC used for mixing Wine and Water - in the 16th Century the Word Crater took on an entirely different Meaning for the Mound of a Vulcano

As we know all too well, wine does not survive exposure to air. The reaction with oxygen ages it quickly and turns it into “vin-aigre”, wine-sour as the French so pointedly say. Preventing wines from getting sour was a challenges in antiquity. It was tackled by sealing the amphorae with clay or raisin. But the seal was never fully airtight. Wines had to be consumed within a year before they became undrinkable. With a few exceptions, there were no old wines. The resin used for sealing the amphora gave the wines the taste we know from Greek Retsina. People got so used to it that they insisted on adding it even when not necessary.

Wine, Olive Oil and Grain were Part of the Big Trade of Trading in Antiquity. Amphorae were sealed and stamped before shipping. Greek amphorae were even found in Lyon in France!

Was dilution used to camouflage the vinegary taste of wine? For wines produced for mass consumption probably yes. In the Roman army, a legionnaire got one liter of wine per day. I guess this was neither the best nor the youngest. The Roman soldiers diluted it before drinking, some-times even with sea water: three parts of water for one part of “wine”. But the alcohol did the job of protecting them from bacterial infection - an ever-present risk when drinking fresh water. We all know the story of the Roman Legionnaire who offered Jesus a drink when he was thirsty. He offered a sponge soaked in vinegar. What we perceive as Roman cruelty was probably unintended. Legionnaires drank the same every day.

The Roman Legionnaire wets the Lips of Jesus with a Vinegar Sponge

But why would people dilute the precious and expensive Ariousios, the sweet wine from Chios, one of the few which could be kept for years? It was so famous that Pliny the Elder wrote admirably of this legendary “black wine”.

The Roman Commander Plinius who died when trying to rescuing citizens from Pompeii

When preparing our visit to Chios – we must stop there in August to buy the legendary Mastic – I had an epiphany.

Ariousios was once grown on these Slopes in northern Chios - a few enthusiastic Pioneers work hard to re-crate it

The production of Ariousios stopped centuries ago. With the end of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, trade routes faded and demand collapsed. Today, nobody knows how Ariousios was made. A few local enthusiasts set up a new winery though and try to re-create the famous Ariousios again. But they openly admit that they have no idea how the famous old wine tasted. They hope a shipwreck found near Chios with intact amphorae could help to solve the puzzle. The DNA analysis of the amphorae’s content should provide some clues.

Cannot wait to taste these Grapes on the Ariousios Winery in Northern Chios

The modern Ariousios wine is produced on the same terroire as the original wine. Soil, exposure to the sun and humidity are almost identical. Maybe even the grapes. The new winery now produces a dry red, a dry white, a dry rosé and a semi-sweet red. It was the last that caught my eye when I noticed that its grapes were dried on the ground to increase its sugar content.

Grapes being dried on the Ground to increase the Sugar Content

From various visits to Porto I remember how Port Wine is made. The sweet and young Port is fortified with Brandy until the alcohol level reaches around 18%. At that point, yeast stops working; the wine becomes stable. It still needs to mature for another two years before becoming drinkable. But the wine can now be exposed to oxygen for a while without turning sour. This fact was quickly noticed by officers of the Royal Navy who soon became Porto’s most important customers. They may have had a specific likening of the Port wine’s taste. What they liked most though was its stability. They could take a barrel of port on a long oversea mission and drink the wine as they pleased. Doing the same with a barrel of Claret from Bordeaux was all but impossible. It would have turned sour within a week. As the old English proverb says, “Claret is for the boys – Port is for men.”

The Royal Navy Officers loved their Port - Photo from the Movie Master and Commander

Ancient Greeks knew about distillation and were able to produce brandy and other schnaps. Is it a far-fetched speculation that the wine makers in Chios fortified their Ariousios with own brandy? The famous black Ariousios would have been the world’s first port wine. The length of production and the many steps involved would also explain the steep price tag Ariousios came with. Last but not least it would explain why it was diluted with water. Drinking a wine with 18% alcohol or higher in larger quantities would make bonding all but impossible. The symposium’s participants would fall into a drunk stupor far too fast.

Port Wines new Rival? Semi-Sweet Ariousis, 12.5%

When we reach Chios in the second week, we need not only look for Mastic. We also need to bring a few bottles of the sweet Ariousios on board to test my epiphany.

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