A PRESSING MATTER
It is reckoned wine, or fermented grape juice, has been with us for the best part of 9,000 years. It seems that, in common with other gustatory pleasures, the grapevine originated in the Far East. From there it took about 1,000 years to travel to Mesopotamia and, unaccountably another 3,000 before it got to Cyprus, via Egypt.
The discovery of fermentation was probably accidental. The fruits of the wild vine were known to our ancestors, so it is not difficult to imagine one of our forefathers or mothers leaving a jug of juice or a bowl of ripe grapes for a few days, and when he/she got juice on to their hands (or took a sip), the story of alcohol and mankind had begun.
Discovery soon let to organisation – meaning the planned pressing or squeezing of grapes. For millennia, therefore, men, women and children have trodden vats of grapes to relieve the grapes of their juice.
To the ladies and gentlemen of 19th century French society, a visit to the wine pressing was something of a social occasion, It even had a violinist. Was he there to provide music to accompany the singing of the pressers, or for the enjoyment of the spectators? Having actually seen for myself vineyard workers singing in harmony whilst treading the grapes, I believe the fiddler was part of the winemaking set-up. Use of human feet to press the grapes lasted well into the 20th century. I took this photograph in 1970 in Madeira. A boy of 8-10 years can be seen learning the trade.
The pressed juice – and the newly fermented wine - didn’t have a very good flavour, so it was, perhaps, not surprising that it was fortified with alcohol and given a special heat treatment to process into the delicious dessert wines of Madeira.
As we know only too well in Cyprus, wine presses are not always present close to the vineyards. Here we endured for many years the sight of grapes loaded in bulk on to lorries and taken up to 45 kms to the wineries for pressing. In France, they took the press to the grapes.
Here is a travelling wine press of about 140 years ago. The vigeron mixed and mashed the grapes, whose juices ran off into containers which were then ferried to the fermentation vats.
Today, at our modern wineries, grapes are pressed hydraulically or mechanically and gone are the days when the leaking lorry loads of grapes waited in the yards of the big Limassol wineries to take their turn to tip tons of grapes into the chutes at the entrance.
You can see how large the old wine pressed were by visiting the “Linos”, adjacent to the square at Omodos.
For whoppers, though, this one at Clos Vougeot of the 1870s would take first prize.
So, when you lift the glass to your lips, take in the aroma and then sip, think of all the pressing that’s gone in to your wine!
A ‘quite drinkable’ seventeenth-century Madeira was claimed at the time to be “the oldest wine that anyone now living has tasted”.
Two bottles laid up by an artillery officer in the cellar of his house in Spitalfields, London, in the 1670s were discovered in 1999 by archaeologists working for the Museum of London. The cork on one had perished, but the other was still intact.
A small sample of wine was tasted by — among others — Michael Broadbent mw, arguably the world’s greatest authority on historic vintages, and David Molyneux-Berry, Head of Wine at Sotheby’s. The experts were divided in their assessment but both agreed that it was drinkable, though ‘fresh’ and very dry (a positive assessment) or ‘a bit sharp’ (somewhat less positive).
edited by Graham Harding.
During my visit to Madeira in 1970, when I took the photograph on this page, I was privileged to taste a vintage 1820 wine. It had the residual sweetness you might expect of this fine dessert wine, but a most satisfying underlying dryness. It seemed strange to be drinking a wine made the year before the death in exile of Napoleon Bonaparte. Perhaps the most memorable glass of my life.