It’s hard to ignore the prominence of wine in the Bible. According to the “Oxford Companion to Wine,” the vine is mentioned more than any other plant. A study at Brigham Young University in Utah found that the word yayin, one of many Ancient Hebrew words used for wine, is used 140 times in the Old Testament. The first thing Noah does post-flood upon reaching dry land is plant a vineyard, get trashed, and pass out in his tent. Later, Jesus shows up at a wedding with his disciples. During the reception, the wedding party runs out of wine and Jesus performs his first miracle, turning water into wine and saving the newlyweds from an epic faux pas. And toward the end of his life, Jesus uses wine at the last supper as a symbol of his blood. Wine plays a central role in the biblical narratives.
What kind of wine were they drinking?
Wine grapes have come a long way since the days of Jesus and King David. There have been millennia of mutations and cross pollinations, displacement from wars and different cultures adopting land throughout time, so it is very hard to pin down what grapes were grown and used for making wine in the Middle East. It’s not for lack of trying, though. Winemakers in Israel have been working to find the varieties used in antiquity through DNA testing and archeological digs. They have identified about 70 native varieties, The New York Times reports, with 20 suitable for winemaking. It’s pretty exciting stuff. One winery — Recanati Winery — produced a wine called “marawi” in 2015, the first indigenous grape made into wine in modern Israeli history.
But aside from this pretty exciting DNA project, it’s tough to know what your favorite Bible character might have had in his wine glass. What’s easier to wrap your head around is how wine was made back in the day. Archeologists have found ancient wine presses as well has Egyptian tomb paintings depicting the winemaking process. This, along with the writings of Pliny the Elder, gives us a sense of the style of wine of the time.
How were they making wine?
The winemaking process began with structures built from stone in the vineyards. These were the wine presses and they contained one large, square platform that was a few feet deep. Into it, you’d dump the grapes. Sometimes these wine presses had a trellis built over them with ropes hanging down to hold onto while stomping around. As they stomped the grapes, the new juice would flow into “yeqebs” and was then collected in earthen vats and stored in a cool place or under water to begin natural fermentation.
This is where it gets interesting. They would keep the trodden grapes skins and use them later. Wine to the ancients was in most cases more of a survival product then a luxury, although the wealthy were said to make good wine that could last a few years. To the commoner, wine needed to last through to the next harvest, and without the technology we have today, they had to make sure the new wine didn’t ferment for too long or it would turn to vinegar. For this reason, it was common practice to add the must, which contained some extra natural sugar, to the new wine so that it would overwhelm the yeast, stopping the fermentation before the wine entered the vinegar zone. The must was also mixed with water for fruit juice for women and children who were not allowed to drink wine.
Pretty awesome winemaking system for antiquity, right? The thing is, though, there was no such thing as filtration or racking wine from one vessel to the next after the organic material settled until the wine was clear. So with all this in mind, we can kind of see how wine tasted back in the day.
So what did wine taste like?
Here’s my best estimation of what wine would have tasted like in Jesus’s day. Because of no filtration, biblical wine was probably not smooth but a bit harsh from constant exposure to the organic material that we usually filter out today. The added must would increase the alcohol level a bit and extract an extra layer of tannin, making it a bit rough around the edges. But because of the must added, the residual sugar levels would be higher, which would add juicy roundness to the harshness. Red wine would probably be very dark in color, which is probably why in the Bible, Jesus uses it as a symbol for his blood.
And there would be no such thing as white wine, in my opinion. I don’t believe the ancient people were separating white wine skins from the juice and then fermenting separately. Wine made from white grapes would probably be amber in color from oxygen exposure and interaction from the must. It, too, would be harsh and juicy, with less tannin but enough to really go well with the local foods.
So wines at the time of the Bible were big, round, juicy, austere wines, red or amber in color. That austerity was often cut with water. It was basically required in the ancient world to dilute your wine with a little bit of water to round it out, and you were seen as a barbarian if you didn’t do so. Pliny dedicates some of his writing to different ratios of dilution, depending on the wine, so as not to comprise the bouquet of a wine.
If the couple getting hitched in Canaan were wealthy, then Jesus and his Apostles were probably drinking new wine that was diluted just right so that it was round and fruit-driven, with just the right amount of sweetness for the wedding guests to proclaim that it was the best around.
What’s the closest wine we have today to the stuff they were sipping?
It’s hard to come up with a modern-day wine that approximates what the Bible’s characters were drinking. For the red it’s especially hard because modern tech does away with the issues they were facing. But Tannat from Uruguay is probably the closest you’d come. For white, I would say what’s known as “orange” wine is most likely what they would have been sipping. Kabaj’s Rebula from Slovenia is a good example, or Bodegas R. Lopez de Heredia from Spain.