Phoenician Wines and Vines
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Phoenician traders exported their wines to and cultivated their vines in the far corners of their colonies. They introduced the world to viticulture and wine appreciation.

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"Day long they pour the wine,
... must-wine, fit for rulers.
Wine, sweet and abundant,
Select wine...
The choice wine of Lebanon,
Most nurtured by El."

"Eat, o Gods, and drink,
drink wine till you are sated"

-- The Rapiuma

The term wine, or Cherem in Phoenician, is derived from a Phoenician word referring specifically to the fermentation of grapes. Wines were a specialty of the Phoenicians and their ancient Ugaritic poetry and epics mentioned wine with ringing praise. The Rapiuma and others were specific in identifying the choice wine of Lebanon as being one nurtured by their god El and fit for gods and kings (see right -- quotations from said poetry). They must have learned about wine from earlier civilizations; however, they perfected viticulture and oenology so that Phoenician wines became prized commodities of the ancient world and a major source of revenue in their exports.

Some scholars believe that Vitis vinifera, originated in the Black Sea or the Caucasia region, and spread south to the Middle East so that by 6,000 BC grape vines were being cultivated in Mesopotamia. Around 3,000 wine cultivation spread to Phoenicia and, thereafter, around 2,000 BC spread to Greece. Between 1000 BC and 500 BC, it reached Europe and thereafter, 300 BC and 500 AD, the Romans took wine northward, all the way to Britain. During The Middle Ages, wine-making was standardized and codified under the disciplined eye of the church.

The Phoenician Canaanites were avid wine drinkers. The Bible mentions that the Phoenician Canaanite Melchizedek, King of Salem (King of Jerusalem) and Priest of the Most High God (El Elion), offered bread and wine to Abraham and Ezekiel refers to the wine of Helbon as a unique commodity. Some believe that the village of Qana (Cana) where Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding feast was a town near Tyre, Phoenicia and not elsewhere. Also, wine was central to the Passover observance among the Jews and continues to be so. It was served for the Passover of the Last Supper betwixt Jesus and his disciples and continues to be central to Christian Eucharistic liturgy of the Mass.

Some of the icons of Phoenician philosophy, Zeno of Citium and Chrysippus of Soli, Phoenician co-founder of the Stoic School of Philosophy were "serious" wine drinkers. The former's main enjoyment was sitting in the sun, eating figs and drinking wine while the latter is said to have died as a result of drinking too much over proof wine.

The Egyptians never succeeded in growing enough grapes to produce wine, a drink foreign to the Egyptians, and relied on imports. In fact, a fresco in an Egyptian tomb of the 18th dynasty depicts seven Phoenician merchant ships anchored at an Egyptian port to sell their goods, including the distinctive Canaanite wine jars in which wine was imported. Egypt recorded the harvest of grapes on stone tablets and the Egyptians drank wine from cups or from a jar through a straw. The Pharaohs were especially fond of wine and some even had bottles buried with them in order to make their journey to the underworld more tolerable. Also, wines were given to dead kings, so that they might entertain their friends in the afterlife. Wine was a very social drink in Ancient Egypt and great importance was given to its limited production and consumption.

Even the Greeks couldn't offer vintages to compare with the Phoenicians until much later. At the table, most people drank their wine mixed with water, quite frequently half and half. So the opportunity to drink pure wine at a ritual was a special occasion. This is why getting drunk was so special and originally considered a spiritual state, in which deities could talk or act through the person in that condition. Some scholars believe that Dionysus was originally from the Middle East, home of wine and ecstatic worship. Also, in pagan worship, wine was used to anoint idols.

Phoenician businessman plied their trade across the seas of the ancient world. Wine was one of their cargoes, and it was transported in amphorae, stacked in racks aboard their ships. Wine in these containers attracted flies and germs and soon went bad; so to keep the insects away, a layer of olive oil was floated on top. This also preserved the wine both by keeping the insects and bacteria at bay and by preventing oxygen in the air from oxidizing the wine. This was all fine until a storm blew up at sea. The wine spilled, which may have done a lot to preserve the ships timbers and improve the atmosphere, but did nothing for business. So a plug had to be found, and it took the form of pinewood disks, which were bedded into the necks of amphorae with a clay and resin mixture. Disks of cork may also have been used with a similar bonding compound. The resinous wood and sealing mixture flavored the wine as they came in contact with rolling seas. The Phoenicians and Greeks came to believe that the resin preserved the wine. Anyhow, a taste was acquired for it, which has survived until this day, in the form of Retsina wine which is stored in barrels with lumps of resin. Raisin wine eventually became a specialty of Carthage.

In recent years, nautical archaeology has been instrumental providing archaeological record of Phoenician shipwreck and their cargo. Wine jugs were found in the hull of the oldest ship ever discovered in deep water of the coast of Israel, thirty miles off the Ashkelon coast. In 1999, Dr. Robert Ballard, the discoverer of the Titanic, made an impressive discovery underwater using a special robot and a side-scan sonar system. Ballard's team uncovered two well-preserved Phoenician wine-laden cargo ships dating back to the year 750 BC -- the oldest known deepwater shipwrecks.

Dr. Ballard reported that one of the ships, the largest ancient ship ever discovered measuring 60 feet (18 meters long) was found 1625 feet (500 meters) under the Mediterranean. A smaller ship was found three kilometers away, measured forty-two feet (thirteen meters) in length. Ballard noted that the ships' contents included many ceramic amphorae were originally filled with wine. Further, he suggested that they were on their way from the port of Tyre to either Egypt or Tunisia when they sank in a violent storm. The amphorae were found intact. Owing to the bitterly cold water temperature, the lack of sunlight, and intense pressure at such depths, the jars were well preserved and in pristine condition. Even though the wood of the vessels had disintegrated, the shape and length of the ships were deduced from the position of the amphorae. From the artifacts recovered -- amphorae, crockery for food preparation, an incense stand for offerings to the weather gods, and a wine decanter -- archaeologists were able to identify that the ship's point of origin was Phoenicia.

The earliest evidence of wine-making in Greece, which many believe was brought to Crete by Phoenician traders, is a stone foot press at Vathipetro, a Minoan villa on Crete, dated to 1600 BC. The sophistication of the site suggests that Minoan production of wine had been underway for some time. Decoded Linear B tablets from the Minoan site at Knossos in Crete revealed an advanced economy fueled by trade with Eastern cultures. Wine was a subject of central importance in Greek poetry, art and religion where Dionysus was the dedicated deity of this "elixir." Greek islands were said to have their particular flavor of vintage, and the two islands of Chios and Lesbos were said to have produced the best of all Greek wines. Wine from Chios was exported to all parts of the known world, while Lesbos exported Essenczian wine, which was very rare and sweet. Some mixed their wines with seawater and various spices.

The Greek's taste for different types of wines developed when they were exposed to wines from other lands where their conquests took them. For example, Greek officers and men in the Ptolemaic camp, who could afford it, bought wine like the one they had tasted in other ports in the East, mainly Phoenicia, and North Africa, which had a long tradition of wines made from sun-dried grapes. Locally grown and produced wines of Greece gained popularity. It seems that Cretan wine became widely known during the Hellenistic period, even though there was no organized export trade of that particular Greek wine abroad in amphorae.

The Greeks considered wine a privilege of the upper classes and it was not consumed by ordinary citizens. Wealthy Greeks even invented a wine tossing game that became quite fashionable at their dinner parties and social gatherings. The game consisted of throwing the last few mouthfuls of wine from a guest's cup into the air. The object was to hit a delicately balanced dish on a pole with the "tossed" wine. This game was very popular and Greeks even coached each other on the best ways in which to play.

Several archeological records as well as ancient references and writings have proved that the wine making in Cyprus had a an ancient tradition. Homer speaks of the excellent quality of Cyprus wines and Stassinos, the author of the "Cyprus Epic Songs", writes that the cultivation of the grape vine in Cyprus dates back to the early days of the Island's colonization in 3,000 BC by the Phoenicians. The first reference to Cypriot wine in the Bible is in Solomon's "Song of Songs" 1:14 "My beloved is unto me as a cluster of Cyprus in the vineyards of Engadi." The Pharaohs of Egypt, as well as the Ancient Greeks and Romans imported Cypriot wines. Recent excavations in Paphos have yielded old coins with a representation of a vine on one side. These date from the 3rd century BC and indicate that even in those days, wine was a major source of the island's wealth.

An old Cypriot chalice of the 6th century BC recommended its user to "Be happy and drink well," signifying the quality of wine in the life of Cyprus. Mosaics discovered in ancient sites on the island bear witness to the importance of Cyprus grapes and the wines they produced.

The Romans learned from the Phoenician/Punic and Greeks to appreciate the consumption and production of wine. They placed great importance on the cultivation of vines and the production of wine. During the height of the Roman Empire, the production of wine spread throughout most of Europe including such places as France, Spain, Italy and even parts of Britain. Initially, they imported their wines from Phoenicia, Greece, Cyprus and the Phoenician Punic colonies of Carthage, Cyprus, Sardinia and the Punic territories of Spain. They prized Raisin wine from Carthage which was known for that particular type of wine.The Roman deity of wine was Bacchus who received special recognition for his gift during their festivals.

During Roman times, wine ceased to be an exclusive commodity of the rich and became available to the population in all its classes. Cities such as Pompeii had bars on most of its streets that catered wine to the masses.  Slaves and lower classes had access to what was actually wine vinegar diluted in water called Posca.

Roman wine was sweetened with honey and, perhaps, sweet communion wine that is used in Byzantine liturgy today has its roots in the pagan Roman turned Byzantine Christian culture after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Other varieties of Roman wines were flavored with fermented fish sauce, garlic, herbs and onion. Some wines were flavored with flowers, roses, spices and mint even to include Absinthe.

The Roman empire ran a worldwide trade in wines in most of the regions still renown for wine making, including Gaul (France), where they planted the vineyards which gave rise to the great French wine industry.  Roman vintages were discussed in literature and records abound.  The first historically great Roman wine was called Opimian (produced about 121 BC).  Throughout the ages, sailors have spread the fame of the wines they have drunk in various ports. The historian Polybius, who was a soldier and a mercenary, also traveled on military ships. He was at the side of Scipio Aemilianus when the Romans besieged Carthage.

Wine, like water in a lesser degree, in Roman cities was a poison in disguise. The Roman aristocracy drank wines imported from Phoenicia and other places or stored from local vintages in large clay amphorae, which were sealed with ceramic glaze that contained high quantities of lead.  The acids in the wine dissolved some of the lead that ended up in the stomach of the drinker. Archaeological evidence in the remains of the ruling classes have a lead content in their bones  high enough to have been lethal.  The remains of peasants did not have high lead content; they drank from wine stored in goatskins. However, everyone drank from the same lead-lined Roman aqueducts that provided water to the cities.  But cold water does not dissolve lead appreciably; nevertheless, lead content in most Romans was higher than others who did not employ lead in food- or drink-related fixtures, reservoirs or utensils.

Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, the vine in Sardinia was imported by the Phoenicians. Confirmation of this comes from the archaeological records of prehistoric sites where precious grape-pips have been found in different nuraghi stratifications -- dating back to Phoenician colonization of the island.

The Phoenicians settled in coastal zones of Cagliari, of Sulcis area, of Sinis area where they took advantage of the geographic position to increase their trades in the Mediterranean basin. However, when the Phoenician Punic colonizers i.e. the Carthaginian, replaced their original forefathers in Sardinia, they destroyed many vineyards to protect wines of their colony, Carthage and they increased the cultivation of the vine that became the most important cultivation in colonies such as Karalis, Tharros, Cornus, Nora and Olbia. Archaeological evidence of this Punic presence in the form of wine amphorae was found in Cagliari’s necropolis. It is also know that Hamilcare, Hannibal’s son, would have come here to stay and cultivate the vine.

Spanish -- The Valdepeñas Discovery
Right in the heart of Spain there is a wine region known as Valdepeñas that, in the light of recent archeological discoveries, is helping to rewrite history. The history of wine as we know it is age-old and painted on a vast scale, stemming from prehistory. To gain a better perspective on the significance of these finds it is best to take a step back and look at the broader canvas.

Spain's role in the propagation of wine culture in Western Europe has always been acknowledged as being important. The Valdepeñas discoveries have added a dramatic, new dimension to what was already a fascinating story. Phoenician traders are credited with having spread, from Tyre to Cádiz. The three columns on which modern wine-making is constructed: Vitis vinifera pontica, Vitis vinifera occidentalis and Vitis vinifera orientalis. Most evidence suggests that the introduction, via the Ebro (Spain's largest and longest river), of Vitis vinifera pontica led to the birth of Europe's best white grape varieties. Vitis vinifera occidentalis appears to have been the precursor of the best red varieties, including Tempranillo, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.

All of this vinous activity took place on or near the coast, the areas favored by Phoenicians. The Valdepeñas discovery has cast a fresh light on this knowledge. It was while excavating a site known as Cerro de las Cabezas that archaeologist, Dr Javier Pérez Avilés, came across his find. Digging down, he uncovered evidence of an ancient Iberian city. As is the case with most digs, the further down you dig, the older the layers of the past revealed. At strata levels equivalent to 500 BC, he discovered substantial amounts of Phoenician ceramics and artifacts. Digging further down, reaching strata levels pertinent to 700 BC he found, much to his delight, evidence of sophisticated wine-making facilities.

What this evidence suggests is that early Iberian inhabitants of Valdepeñas had acquired the knowledge of how to cultivate the vine and how to turn it into wine at a remarkably early date. One has to bear in mind that Valdepeñas is far inland and nowhere near the Ebro Valley. For an advanced wine culture to have existed here at such an early date implies certain rewriting of history. Although it is still early days in terms of coming to firm conclusions, what is absolutely clear is that the region of Valdepeñas has been at the heart of European wine-making for far longer than anyone suspected.

It should come as no surprise that early wine makers should have chosen Valdepeñas as a wine-making haven, though. Today, 28 centuries later, Valdepeñas is still a vinicultural center of world importance.

There is evidence to suggest that wine-making in Mallorca goes back as far as the early Phoenician settlement, and it may have preceded mainland vinicultural activity. Certainly some of the island's grape varieties appear to have links with ancient varieties associated with early Phoenician plantings. Mallorca's oldest surviving winery was founded in 1711, although the wine-making tradition had existed long before. In his time, Lo Crestia Catalán moralist Françesc Eiximenis declares that his favorite wines are sweet vintages from the Phoenician strongholds of Cyprus, Crete and Mallorca.


  • Julián Vélez Rivas, Jose Javier Pérez Avilés, Miguel Carmona, Astillero Localización: Investigaciones arqueológicas en Castilla La Mancha: 1996-2002, 2004, ISBN 84-7788-332-7, pags. 91-104
  • Julián Vélez Rivas, Jose Javier Pérez Avilés, Miguel Carmona Astillero, Conjunto arqueológico Cerro de las Cabezas: puesta en valor de la ciudad ibérica Revista de arqueología, ISSN 0212-0062, Año nº 25, Nº 279, 2004, pags. 38-47
  • Germán Esteban Borrajo, Patricia Hevia Gómez, Jose Javier Pérez Avilés, Julián Vélez Rivas, La Transición del Bronce Final a la Primera Edad del Hierro en el Cerro de Las Cabezas (Valdepeñas-Ciudad Real) Cuadernos de estudios manchegos, ISSN No tiene, Nº. 25-26, 2003, pags. 11-46
  • Aránzazu Urbina Alvarez, Vicente M. Sánchez Sánchez-Moreno, Julián Vélez Rivas, Jose Javier Pérez Avilés, Lorenzo Galindo San José, Artículo Intervención arqueológica en el yacimiento de San Miguel (Valdepeñas) Cuadernos de estudios manchegos, ISSN No tiene, Nº. 25-26, 2003, pags. 81-171
  • Jose Javier Pérez Avilés, Julián Vélez Rivas, Artículo Oretanos en la meseta sur: el yacimiento ibérico del Cerro de las Cabezas Revista de arqueología, ISSN 0212-0062, Año nº 20, Nº 213, 1999, pags. 46-55
  • See bibliography

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Additional references, sources and bibliography (Please don't write and ask me for references. You can find them at the end of article or in Bibliography)

Phoenicia, A Bequest Unearthed -- Phoenician Encyclopedia

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