Comparing the wines of antiquity to modern wine

Reading Omar Khayyam’s poetry recently, I wondered how the wines of antiquity would compare to today’s?
J.S., North Turramurra, NSW

Credit: Simon Letch

A: An interesting question. I’d say the only things they’d have in common are fermented grapes as a primary ingredient and their alcohol content. Khayyam’s wines – if, indeed, he drank any at all since the Persian poet, mathematician and astronomer would have had religious grounds for abstaining – probably had little in common, taste-wise, with today’s. The wines of that time were likely an oxidised brown colour, turbid, volatile and imbued with all kinds of funky aromas and flavours due to the uncontrolled activity of micro-organisms. Modern winemakers have the technology and know-how to keep these critters out.


Indeed, Italian winemaking legend Piero Antinori – whose family has been making wine in Tuscany for more than six centuries – has said that there have been more advances in the industry over the past 50 years than in the previous thousand. That gives you some idea.

The ancients also used to add various substances to wine to cover up the bad tastes: herbs, resins or honey if you were lucky, olive oil or pitch if you weren’t.

Even if Khayyam recognised today’s wines, he probably wouldn’t enjoy them because they’d be so unfamiliar to his palate. Some of the poetry attributed to him glorifies wine, but it’s highly probable that the use of wine in Persian and Sufi verse is metaphorical. Wine is representative of earthly pleasures, yes, but also of eternal bliss – I often wonder what the Vintners buy / One half so precious as the Goods they sell [The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam]. In other words, what material possessions can we buy in this world that are even half as valuable as the heavenly wine we squander in order to get our hands on them? He was more likely to allow himself to become intoxicated by the divine light – or nature.

Finally, let’s not overlook his reference to the vintner, the person who sells the wine. It’s always been a smart move for the customer to find out what the person selling the booze is drinking. Salespeople tend to talk up the stock they want to shift: ask them what they’re currently enjoying pouring into a glass at home.

Got a drinks question for Huon Hooke?

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