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A Few historical facts

The vine was cultivated over wide areas of ancient Greece, not only in Athens and the Peloponnese but also on the islands, in Macedonia and Thrace. Macedonia in particular has a long tradition of wine production. According to Clearchus of Soloi, the first to discover the art of wine-making was Maron, son of Evanthis, whose fame is commemorated in the name of Maroneia in Thrace.

However, it is in eastern Macedonia that the first signs of vine cultivation were found. A recent excavation near Krinides, Kavala, uncovered grape seeds, which have been dated to the end of the prehistoric period. Grape seeds have also been found at the excavation of the Mound of Fotolivos near Drama, dating to the Neolithic period (about 4000 BC). Moreover, grape seeds more or less resembling the varieties suitable for wine production have been found in the same region close to the village of Sitagri, in an area where artificial irrigation was in use. These seeds date from 3000 BC. It is generally believed that the first area of vineyards in Greece was at Philippi, in eastern Macedonia, and that they were cultivated as early as 2800–2200 BC.

Over the ensuing centuries, and up until the late Mycenean period, our knowledge of Macedonian wine production is limited. The most important source of information is the poet Homer. In the Odyssey he states that Maron had offered ten amphorae of wine to Ulysses, which the latter used to intoxicate the Cyclops. The same wine, from the city of Ismaros, was favoured by the Achaeans during the Trojan campaign.

We have much more information on the cultivation of the vine and production of wine in Macedonia during the archaic and classical periods. Our main sources are contemporary literary texts, representations on coins (mainly from the 6th century BC) and, to a lesser extent, representations on vases from the classical period.

According to the information we have there were vineyards in Halkidiki (at Mendi, Skione, Akanthos and the Mt. Athos peninsula), on Thasos, at Pella and Stagira, where Aristotle himself kept a vineyard. An inscription has also been found on Thasos dating from the 5th century BC, which regulates all aspects of the grape harvest, wine production and the sale of wine, which could only be sold in amphorae officially sealed by the market inspectors. The same law, intended to protect the authenticity of the local wine, determined that no ship bearing wine could approach the port of Thasos, on pain of seizure of the vessel.

The wines of Macedonia and, mainly, of Thasos, were exported to the whole of the known world, in amphorae carried on cargo vessels. But with the Roman domination of the Mediterranean the centre of gravity of the wine trade shifted from the northern to the southern Aegean, and away from Greece altogether. However wine production in Macedonia carried on uninterruptedly.

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire brought the abandonment of the cultivation of the vine and a dramatic fall in the consumption of wine in western and central Europe. As the guardian of the Greek and Roman cultural heritage during the Middle Ages Byzantium preserved the art of vine cultivation. In fact it was during the Byzantine era that some of the best wines of their time were produced.

Cultivation of the vine continued without interruption in the wine-producing areas of Mt. Athos, Pella, Thasos, Kavala and Drama. Although the vines were often destroyed by bad weather, disease or war, we know that in the 5th century AD the area under cultivation had increased, and that wines were now known by the region where they had been produced. Particularly famous for its wine was the region of Mt. Pangaion, which was visited by the Emperors Nikiforos Fokas and Andronicos Kantakouzinos, anxious to sample the local wines.

An equally — if not more — important region of wine production in the Byzantine period was Halkidiki. Because of the large number of monasteries on Mt. Athos — far more than today — and the role of wine as part of the monks’ staple diet, almost all of Halkidiki, both the southern part and the north-west, as far as modern Kalamaria, were full of vineyards producing grapes to be turned into wine. The vine was cultivated so methodically that by the 10th century AD there was a glut of wine on Mt. Athos and it began to be sold in Thessaloniki and later to be shipped to other parts of Macedonia, to Constantinople and even to other countries. The wine was stored in special storage areas in the monasteries, known as vagenaria, and in similar storage areas in the dependencies of the monasteries up and down Halkidiki.

Following the fall of Constantinople to the Crusaders, Europe was re-acquainted with the joys of wine by the Venetians and Genoans. On their return to the West after a longer or shorter sojourn in Byzantium the Crusaders and feudal lords brought with them varieties of vine, which they planted, mainly, close to the shores of the Mediterranean.

During the period of Turkish rule there was a significant decline in the area of land devoted to the vine. The main reason was the antipathy to wine of the Muslims, an attitude derived from the prohibition in the Koran on consuming alcoholic drinks. Yet neither viticulture not wine-production disappeared altogether. The main wine-producing areas were now those of Siatista, Servia, Amyntaio, Naoussa, Goumenissa, Kitros near Katerini, Giannitsa, the dependencies of the monasteries of Mt. Athos in Halkidiki, and the region of Thessaloniki. The Turkish traveller Evlia Tselebi, touring Macedonia in the 17th century, wrote that there were 11,500 acres of vineyards in the area around Thessaloniki, and that each vineyard had its own special place where people came together to enjoy the wine.

In Halkidiki the cultivation of the vine continued without interruption, even after the Ottoman conquest. Both within Mt. Athos and at the dependencies the monks planted vines of the Limnio variety and, to a lesser extent, other varieties brought from Georgia. The best of all the wines was believed to be the Limnio variety wine produced by the Dionysios Monastery from the Monoxylitis vineyard. At Siatista viticulture reached its heyday in the mid-15th century and remained active until the middle of the 20th century, when it was dramatically curtailed by the ravages of phylloxera and by the mass migration of local people to the cities. The wines that were produced here, and are still produced today, belong mainly to the Xynomavro variety, but also to the varieties Stavroto, Valantovo and Moschomavro. Other regions of Macedonia producing wines of renown were Naoussa, Goumenissa (where the Xynomavro variety was dominant) and Amyntaio. From the 17th century onwards wine began to be produced also in more southerly areas, such as Rapsani and Ambelakia.

The French traveller Cousinery, who visited Macedonia in the early 19th century, regarded the wine of Naoussa as the ‘best in the Ottoman Empire after the wine of Tenedos’. Mary Walker, who visited western Macedonia in 1860, commended the quality of the wines of Kozani, Naoussa and Kastoria.

The vineyards of Macedonia were struck by a terrible calamity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1898 — for the first time — phylloxera afflicted the vineyards of Pylaia, outside Thessaloniki, and in the following decades spread to the vineyards of the rest of Macedonia and Thrace. The spread of the disease was rapid and disastrous, especially in Macedonia. Whole vineyards, like that of Siatista and of the Megisti Lavra Monastery, were utterly destroyed. Even the arrival of the refugees from eastern Romylia, eastern Thrace and the Black Sea, bringing with them new species of vine, new knowledge and experience, was not enough to halt the decline of viticulture and wine-making in Macedonia — a decline which continued until the beginning of the 1980s. In 1938 Macedonia accounted for only 7.9% of overall Greek wine production.

Of course, attempts were made to combat the disease by crossbreeding with varieties of vine from France, Bulgaria and other European countries, but with dubious results. Vineyards were saved, but the area under cultivation declined substantially and the quality of the wines produced fell dramatically.