Ten things you did not know about wine

20 Jul|Anne McHale

"Le vin des rois et le roi des vins": Tokaji was the eighteenth century's most revered wine.

At the Idler Festival, Master of Wine Anne McHale, who also presents our online course in the history of wine, came to tell us what the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and medieval monks drank, and why wine tastes quite different today. Below she reveals ten surprising things about the taste of wine through history.

1 The modern importance we attribute to the taste of wine really only dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, when the birth of the concept of ‘good taste’ made wine an object of aesthetic desire, just like art or music.

2. The first time homo sapiens consumed wine, it was probably by accident when someone picked up and tasted a bunch of fermenting grapes… and enjoyed the results!

3. Wine as we know it today bears little resemblance to what it would have tasted like in the past, which explains the shift in attitude which came about in the nineteenth century.

4. A lack of both scientific understanding and access to hermetically sealed vessels meant that not only did the ancients not understand why wine turned to vinegar when left exposed to air, they also weren’t able to very much about it.

5. In order to disguise wine’s horrible vinegary taste, our ancestors mixed wine with everything from water through to saffron, pepper, mint, rose petals, violets or honey.

6. It’s important to understand, though, that they cared much less about what wine tasted like than what it represented – a divine gift from the gods.

7. In any case, wine was necessary in order to kill off the pathogens in unsafe drinking water. So they drank it no matter what the taste!

8. If you were rich enough, you could afford to drink pure, sweet wine whose high sugar content acted as a preservative to slow down the vinegarisation process.

9. One such sweet wine, which reached its peak of fame in the 18th century, was Tokaji from Hungary. At the Idler Festival we tasted the Berry Bros. & Rudd Tokaji – a delicious example which gives you a tantalising glimpse into the kind of wine enjoyed by Louis XIV, for example.

10. Another historic wine style which allows you to taste a piece of history is Madeira, a wine used to toast the US Declaration of Independence in 1776, and which we also enjoyed at the Idler Fest courtesy of Berry Bros. & Rudd’s own-label range.

To learn more about the fascinating history of wine, take a look at Anne’s online course here.