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​Architecture And Wine Through The Ages

Chris d Craiker AIA

The Temple to Bacchus, Baalbek, Lebanon

Photo by Sydne deCraiker

In today’s world of high-tech wine making, storage and distribution, it’s fascinating to think about how architecture participated in the creation of wine through the years. Archaeology has always been a fascination to me and can give today’s winemakers some insight on the process historically.

We know that wine was being produced seasonally as a byproduct of grape juice in the Armenia and Georgian mountains over 6100 years ago. However, it was a haphazard process and it wasn’t until about 5500 BC that production was moved indoors and became a permanent part of the community. One ancient wine cellar was found in an Armenian cave with a crude but functional wine press with a fermentation tank along with a leather shoe. This suggests that shoes were removed and the custom of stomping grapes was common. Lucy Ricardo would be proud.

Interestingly Egyptians who are known for their beer production, were making wine around 4000 BC.  While grapes never grew in ancient Egypt there was a royal winemaking industry in the Nile delta of importing grapes from Palestine and Phoenicia, today Lebanon. Around 2700 BC grape vineyards grew on the Delta wine kept in glass containers were essential for a soul’s voyage into the afterlife.

Wild grapes grew from today’s Turkey all the way to South Iran. The 15th BC Mesopotamians recorded 81 vineyards in a single village and the tablets were clear that they “drank wine until saturated and inebriated”.

But hold on. Did the Chinese invent wine even earlier? Fluids proved to be grape-based from 9000 years ago were discovered in China which included rice, honey and fruit. Rumor is, the Chinese were making Sangria before anyone else made wine.

The Sixth century BC Greeks pioneered the cultivation and production of wine from grape vineyards as well as olive oil from olive tree orchards. Their processes influenced today’s France, Italy, Austria and even Eastern nations for wine production. One of the earliest known Greek wine presses was discovered in Crete in the 1600 BC era. Eventually the Romans picked up the baton and made it a true business for trade throughout the Mediterranean.

Interestingly, the stone basin with a runoff drain was developed about the same time for both wine and olive oil extraction. The best wine was produced from free-run juice released by grapes under their own weight before any treading or pressing in cool underground rooms or caves. This wine was used for medicinal purposes, just as today’s medicines often have an alcohol base.

In 200 BC, A very detailed account of the workings of a Roman press room was published by Cato the Elder. By the first century A.D., wine was produced in large tanks or troughs from grapes stomped by feet or paddles. The storage and delivery of wine throughout the Mediterranean and as far away as the British Isles was in Amphorae, the pointed vessel that could be unload by plunging them into the harbor’s wet sand.

Of course, the Romans were always eager to erect temples to Bacchus, the god of wine, grape harvest, wine making an even religious ecstasy. Throughout the Mediterranean dozens of such temples dotted the Roman cities. One such temple in Baalbek, Lebanon, was photographed by my brother. Ironically, he never drank.

In the Middle Ages, winemaking advanced by religious orders who owned the best vineyards around their abbeys and monasteries. The basket press became popular and was made of woods staves bound together and the disk wood press towards the bottom with the juice seeping out between the staves into a wooden surrounding basin. This remained the common method into the 19th century.

Keeping wine in vessels to age was uncommon in this unsanitary era. There are reports of wine cellar workers suffocating from released carbon dioxide while treading fermented wine grapes in a vat.

Since the 10th Century, wine and architecture have become so intertwined as to become co-dependent. Castles and monasteries initially shaped the image of wine as more than an elixir but as an experience. Rather than go into an extensive history here, a follow- up article of how today’s wine industry is so dependent on cutting edge architecture. Today’s wineries are becoming temples to Bacchus as if the Romans had built them. Only contemporize and edgy but with all the solemnness of a cathedral.

So, which comes first? The wine or the architectural statement?

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB Thinks Wine and Architecture go together like a horse and carriage

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