Phoenicians and wine
The culture of the ancient Phoenicians was one of the first to have had a significant effect on the history of wine. Phoenicia was a civilization centered in the northern reaches of Canaan along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, in what is now Lebanon. Between 1550 BC and 300 BC, the Phoenicians developed a maritime trading culture that expanded their influence from the Levant to North Africa, the Greek Isles, Sicily, and the Iberian Peninsula. Through contact and trade, they spread not only their alphabet but also their knowledge of viticulture and winemaking, including the propagation of several ancestral varieties of the Vitis vinifera species of wine grapes.
They either introduced or encouraged the dissemination of wine knowledge to several regions that today continue to produce wine suitable for international consumption. These include modern-day Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. (Though the Phoenicians may have had an indirect effect on the spread of viticulture in France, they are often confused with the Greek Phoceans, founders of the winemaking colony and port of Massilia in 600 BC and conveyors of wine knowledge deeper into the interior.)
The Phoenicians and their Punic descendants of Carthage had a direct influence on the growing winemaking cultures of the ancient Greeks and Romans that would later spread viticulture across Europe. The agricultural treatises of the Carthaginian writer Mago were among the most important early texts in the history of wine to record ancient knowledge of winemaking and viticulture. While no original copies of Mago's or other Phoenician wine writers' works have survived, there is evidence from quotations of Greek and Roman writers such as Columella that the Phoenicians were skilled winemakers and viticulturists.
They were capable of planning vineyards according to favorable climate and topography, such as which side of a slope was most ideal for grape growing, and producing a wide variety of different wine styles ranging from straw wines made from dried grapes to an early example of the modern Greek wine retsina, made with pine resin as an ingredient. The Phoenicians also spread the use of amphoras (often known as the "Canaanite jar") for the transport and storage of wine.
Early history in wine trading
Historians think it was shortly after the discovery of wine itself, the alcoholic product of fermented grape juice, that cultures realized its value as a trade commodity. Although wild grapes of the Vitis genus could be found throughout the known world and all could be fermented, it took some degree of knowledge and skill to turn these grapes into palatable wine. This knowledge was passed along the trading routes that emerged from the Caucasus and Zagros Mountains down through Mesopotamia and to the Mediterranean, eventually reaching Phoenicia. Specific varieties of grapevines of the V. vinifera species were identified as especially favorable for winemaking, cuttings of which were spread via these trade routes.
In addition to being a valuable trade commodity for personal consumption, wine also began to take on religious and cultural significance. Wine, or chemer as the Phoenicians called it, was associated with various Levantine deities—most notably El. Wine was considered an acceptable offering to both gods and kings, increasing its trade value in the ancient world. Around 1000 BC, the Mediterranean wine trade exploded, making the Phoenicians and their extensive maritime trade network prime beneficiaries of the increased demand. The Phoenicians not only traded in wine produced in Canaan but also developed markets for wine produced in colonies and port cities around the Mediterranean Sea.
Expansion and colonization
From their principal settlements in Byblos, Tyre and Sidon, the Phoenicians began to expand their trade influence to their neighbors and among the first to bring wine to Egypt. From there they expanded from beyond mere trading to establishing colonies of trading cities throughout the Mediterranean. They continued along the southern shores to found Carthage in 814 BC in northern Africa, and from there to the Balearic Islands and the Iberian Peninsula. The Phoenicians were the founders of Málaga and Cádiz in present-day Spain sometime in the 9th century, though a small outpost may have been established even earlier.
The Phoenicians traveled the peninsula's interior, establishing trading routes along the Tagus, Douro, Baetis (Guadalquivir) and Iberus (Ebro) rivers. While it is clear that the Phoenician colonies along the coast had planted vineyards, and the Phoenicians likely traded wine with the tribes along the rivers inland, it is not yet certain how far they took winemaking inland. In Portugal, however, the Phoenicians were known to trade amphoras of wine for local silver and tin.
A recent discovery in the modern-day winemaking region of Valdepeñas in the south central part of what is now Spain, suggests that the Phoenicians brought viticulture further inland. Excavation in Valdepeñas has revealed the remnants of the ancient Iberian town of Cerro de las Cabezas, founded sometime in the 7th century BC. Among the remnants were several examples of Phoenician ceramics, pottery and artifacts, including winemaking equipment.
Beyond the Phoenicians' own expansion and colonization, the civilization did much to influence the Greek and Roman civilizations to pursue their own campaigns of expansion. Dealing directly with the Greeks, the Phoenicians taught them not only their knowledge of winemaking and viticulture but also shipbuilding technologies that encouraged the Greeks to expand beyond the Aegean Sea. The wines of Phoenicia had such an enduring presence in the Greek and Roman world that the adjective "Bybline" (from the Phoenician town of Byblos) became a byword denoting wine of high quality.
Spread of grapevines
The most enduring legacy of Phoenicia's era of expansion was the propagation and spread of ancestral grapevines that ampelographers believe eventually gave rise to several modern grape varieties in Europe. One subvariety, known to ampelographers and wine historians as V. vinifera pontica, was brought to Phoenicia from the Caucasus and Anatolia regions. The Phoenicians spread this strain throughout the Mediterranean—most notably to its Iberian colonies. Ampelographers theorize that this vine is the ancestor of many of today's most widely planted white grapes. According to research from the University of California-Davis, the French wine grape Mourvèdre may have been first introduced by the Phoenicians to Barcelona, in the modern-day Spanish wine region of Catalonia, around 500 BC.
Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, was the Phoenicians' most successful colony and survived in its Punic form until its destruction in 146 BC by Roman forces at the end of the Punic Wars. The colony shared an indelible association with wine and was described in the 4th century as having countrysides full of grapevines and olives. Carthaginian wine produced from the Bagradas river valley was particularly popular.
The city of Carthage also served as a center of knowledge, exemplified by the work of the Punic writer Mago, who consolidated the agricultural and viticultural knowledge of the 3rd- and 2nd-century BC Mediterranean world into a 28-volume set. His writings detailed advanced knowledge of the influence of topography on vineyard production, with recommendations, for example, that the north slope of a hill be planted to shield grapevines from the excessively hot North African sun. The work also discussed winemaking practices, including early examples of "raisin wine" made from dried grapes. Carthage's rival, Rome, indicated the significance of Mago's treatise when the Roman senate issued a decree requesting its translation into Latin. It was among the few works saved from the Carthaginian library when the Romans destroyed the city in 146 BC.
Today there are no surviving remnants of Mago's work or its Latin translation. What is known is documented through quotations of his books by Greek and Roman authors, most notably the Roman Columella.
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