Winemaking in First-Century Israel

You don't have to read for long to discover wine is a big thing in the Bible. After the flood, Noah is described as planting a vineyard. Jesus' first miracle was turning water into wine. Vineyards feature in parables, stories, history, prophecy, and poetry throughout the whole Bible. From ancient days until now, wine has been a part of the human experience.

Historians believe winemaking was invented in the country of Georgia (though it wasn't called Georgia at the time!) From there, it moved south through ancient Canaan and down to Egypt. Later, winemaking was taken up by the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans, who spread wine across Europe. Wine was one of the major trade products of the ancient world. Biblical rulers like Solomon traded wine for other goods they needed. (2 Chronicles 2:10)

How was wine made? How was wine stored? Do we know what wine tasted like in the time of Jesus? Read on to learn more!

How was wine made in ancient Israel?

Egyptian art from 1401-1391 BC depicts men trampling grapes beneath their feet in a vat to extract the juice. Human feet are excellent for squishing grapes without crushing the seeds, which would add a bitter taste to the grape juice. The juice was then held in containers or pits and left to ferment.

Archaeological evidence for wine-making and storage has been found, like this 2,600 year old winepress in Lebanon. The differences in the various discoveries show that the basic process of winemaking could be implemented in various ways and on different scales. There is no one single way that all wine was made, but there are similarities across the board.

The basic set-up would start with a vat near a vineyard. This vat would have been cut from limestone, made from wood, or created from hardened clay. Over the vat was a wooden structure to give shade, and which also provided a place for those treading the grapes to hold handles to keep from slipping.

The grapes were picked from the nearby vines in late summer, but sometimes vintners chose to dry the grapes in the sun before pressing them to enhance the sweetness of the wine. Red wine was the most popular, made from dark grapes, but there were also lighter-colored wines made from white grapes, though white wines were certainly not as clear and pale as the wines we have today. The grapes were brought in from the vineyard in baskets and laid in the vat for pressing.

One scripture talks about those who shout in the vineyard and while treading wine, which likely refers to the workers joyfully encouraging each other to keep at the hard work. (Isaiah 16:10) As the juice was extracted beneath their feet, it would flow out from a low point of the vat through a simple filter. This filter might have been as rudimentary as a twisted bunch of thorns to catch seeds, stems, and other debris.

After passing through the filter, the juice would flow into a large jar or a pit that was dug into the ground to keep temperatures consistent. For large productions, there might be several pits where the wine could be diverted by channels cut in the rock.

Once the juice was in the cistern or basin, the wine would be covered and left to ferment. The yeast that occurs naturally on grape skins was all that was necessary to provide the chemical reaction. The wine would bubble as it fermented, and the fermenting process took three to five days to complete.

The vintner might then choose to add spices or sweeten the fermented wine or apply any of their secret recipes. The wine was then either diverteted to an even lower pit where it was poured into jars, or drawn out with a long handled ladel. The wine was perhaps filtered one more time through a linen cloth as it was poured into its storage containers.

How was wine stored in the first century?

Wine needs to be stored in t