When medieval people chose what wine to drink, they might check at its colour, smell and taste. More importantly, the choice was often an individual one based what was the healthiest drink for them.
Determining what type of wine to drink in the Middle Ages seems to have been a very complex decision, according to Allen Grieco in his article ‘Medieval and Renaissance Wines: Taste, Dietary Theory, and How the Choose the “Right” Wine (14th-16th Centuries)’ Greico, an expert in food history from Harvard University, focuses on sources from Italy and notes that while the modern wine drinker will place a great deal of importance on where a wine was produced, this did not matter very much for his medieval counterpart.
Instead, some of the ideas behind medieval scientific thought and personal health were considered to be very important in determining what type of wine to drink. It was believed that all things were made up of four qualities – hot, cold, dry and wet – and to maintain good health your meals and drinks had to balance those levels in your body. Grieco writes “In the summer, for example, a season of warm and dry weather, the right kind of food and drink was meant to be humorally ‘cold’ thus allowing the human body to become as ‘temperate’ as possible, for a median humoral constitution was the ideal. Inversely, for old people, who were considered to be naturally ‘cold’, it was suggested that they should be consuming humorally ‘hot’ foods and drinks so as to correct their ‘cold’ constitution.
By the thirteenth-century medical texts were often including large sections about maintaining proper diets, and the drinking of wine was a popular topic. These texts often noted that there was a great deal of difference between wines. For example, the 16th century doctor Cesare Crivallati explains:
there are different types of wines since some of them are new wines, some old ones, some white, some red, some sweet austere, some raw, some cooked, some navigated, others not navigated, some odorous, others lacking odors, some from the mountains, others from the valleys, some powerful, others weak, some fine, others gross, some tasty, others insipid…
Medieval people found there were a lot of colours in wine besides red or white – some could be black (a very dark red), gold, green or pink, and these colours could change as the wines were aged. Smelling the wine was important too – another physician Michel Savonarola commented that “the inhabitants of Padua, who know this better, always shake the wine first in the glass and put their nose to it in order to judge it. If they do not perceive an odor they make fun of the wine saying that it is a very ‘weak’ one.”
Naturally taste also mattered, and while modern-day people usually classify tastes as salty, sweet, acidic and bitter, his medieval counterpart would find anywhere between seven and thirteen types of tastes, including fat, vinegary and brusque. Wine could have a range of tastes, going from strong and sweet to bitter and weak. It was generally recommended that the sweeter wines should be drank only in small quantities and for special occasions, such as wedding feasts. If one drank too much of that kind of wine, it could lead to an overheating of the body, which could damage you physically as well as morally.
Greico adds that:
Once the nature of a given wine was determined it still remained necessary for a consumer to respect at least four other conditions. First of all, it was necessary to know the humoral constitution of he person who was going to drink the wine. Secondly, it was important to determine what food was going to be eaten with it. Thirdly, it was necessary to take into account the time of the year in which the wine was to be drunk and, finally, it was also important to consider the geographical location in which the wine was to be consumed.
This led the wine drinker to consider a dizzying variety of factors in making his choice. For example, if you were eating fish, a cold and moist food, it would be best to have a ‘hot’ wine. However, it was not recommended that young people drink ‘hot’ wine – as Baldassarre Pisanelli explains “it adds fire to fire on top of weak wood.” Meanwhile, if it was wintertime, it might be better to drink a ‘hot’ wine instead of a ‘cold’ one to compensate for the loss of body heat.
One might ask if all these factors into choosing a wine made the drinker just give up and pick the first thing available. Greico finds that in letters and other documents that medieval people seemed to care quite a lot about these rules and even tried to make wine that would better fit within the right guidelines. For example, winemakers were advised that in order to cool a hot wine you should suspend a phial of quick silver or a piece of lead in the middle of a wine barrel, so it could absorb some of the wine’s heat.
The article ‘Medieval and Renaissance Wines: Taste, Dietary Theory, and How the Choose the “Right” Wine (14th-16th Centuries)’ appeared in the journal Mediaevalia, Volume 30 in 2009. This issue was devoted to wine in the Middle Ages and Renaissance – click here to see its table of contents.
To learn more about Allen J. Grieco, visit his webpage on the Villa I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies website.