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Ancient cellars reveal a taste for vintages (December 6, 2013)

Winemaking is the world's second-oldest profession, and no doubt it helped relieve the burdens of the world's oldest. We have no record of how wine was first made but perhaps we owe our gratitude to a woman. According to a Persian legend the unnamed heroine was a concubine in the harem of King Jamshid. The king was very fond of grapes, and in order to enjoy them year-round he had them stored sealed in jars. When he sent for one of the jars several months later, he found that the contents were fermenting. Believing the liquid to be poisonous, he had the jar labelled as such and placed in a far corner of the royal storeroom, out of harm's way.

When one of his concubines was expelled from the harem she decided to put an end to her misery by swallowing the "poison." Summoned before the king to explain her odd euphoric behaviour, she confessed her transgression. Intrigued, Jamshid ordered a quantity of wine to be made for the delectation of his entire court. King Jamshid is said to have lived for a thousand years — the earliest testimonial to the salutary effects of wine.

Whether there is any truth to this story or not, there is archaeological evidence in the remains of grape seeds, skins and stalks in clay potsherds that suggests wine was being made nearly seven thousand years ago in the area now known as the Fertile Crescent.

While the Old Testament does not actually state that Noah built a wine cellar in the ark, it's unthinkable that he would have undertaken such a long sea voyage without wine. In his book Noah's Ark: A Feasibility Study, John Woodmorappe lists the number of paired-off animals he imagined to be on the ark: 7,428 mammals, 4,602 birds and 3,724 reptiles. Noah and his wife and the crew would have needed some refreshment after the long days of foddering and cleaning up after that lot.

Wine has an extensive history within Egyptian civilization too. Grapes were not native to the landscape of the country, so some scholars suggest that the vines may have been imported from the Phoenicians, though the actual origins remain in dispute. What is known is that by the third millennium b.c., Egyptian kings had expansive wine cellars; one of the oldest in recorded history, dating back to Egypt's First Dynasty, was known as the Wine Store of the Hog.

The question remains: at what point in history did wine consumers discover that wine improves with age when stored under ideal conditions rather than just put away to be used when needed? Perhaps the answer lies in the size of the cellar and the amount of wine it could contain. The Mycenaean king Nestor (1400 b.c.) must have loved his wine. Excavations at Pylos uncovered the remains of a forty-foot-long room. According to William Younger, in Gods, Men and Wine, "down one wall was set a row of large jars; a double row down the middle of his cellar; and they may have been a fourth row of jars down the other long. . . . The capacity of the best preserved jars is somewhere about 200 litres so that the cellar could have held at least 6,000 litres of wine. This may mean that 6,000 litres was being matured for two or three, or more years, than the annual intake of the cellar (and perhaps also the total size of the vintage) would of course have been less than 6,000 litres." So if the wine were aged for three years, the royal cellar must have held at least two thousand litres of wine, the equivalent of 222 cases of twelve bottles each. And that's the worst-case scenario.

In Persia an excavated cellar in the fortress in Nimrud, south of Nineveh, built by King Cyrus after he conquered Babylon in 539 BC, was found to contain row upon row of huge terra cotta jars. Inscriptions suggest that the wines had been laid down for the king's male choir, who were served a quart a day. This daily ration of wine finds its echo during the Roman Empire, when centurions on the march were allocated a litre of wine a day; they used it to sterilize their water, disinfect their wounds and consume for pleasure. The longevity of Rome's dominance might well be ascribed to the health of its armies. While the troops of Gaul and Britannia were riddled with dysentery and cholera from tainted water, the Roman legions remained a healthy fighting force because of their daily ration of wine.

Certainly there is continuity in the use of wine cellars in Europe from Roman times to the present. The crypts of early churches would have been ideal spaces for storing wine in barrel and in bottle. The feeling you get when you visit ancient cellars in European wineries is that there is something ecclesiastical about the experience, particularly in the sherry bodegas of Jerez, whose above-ground cellars resemble cathedrals with their majestic vaulted ceilings.




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