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The culture of the ancient Phoenicians was one of the first to have had a significant effect on the history of wine. Phoenicia was a civilization centered in the northern reaches of Canaan along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, in what is now Lebanon. Between 1550 BC and 300 BC, the Phoenicians developed a maritime trading culture that expanded their influence from the Levant to North Africa, the Greek Isles, Sicily, and the Iberian Peninsula. Through contact and trade, they spread not only their alphabet but also their knowledge of viticulture and winemaking, including the propagation of several ancestral varieties of the Vitis vinifera species of wine grapes.
They either introduced or encouraged the dissemination of wine knowledge to several regions that today continue to produce wine suitable for international consumption. These include modern-day Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. (Though the Phoenicians may have had an indirect effect on the spread of viticulture in France, they are often confused with the Greek Phoceans, founders of the winemaking colony and port of Massilia in 600 BC and conveyors of wine knowledge deeper into the interior.)
The Phoenicians and their Punic descendants of Carthage had a direct influence on the growing winemaking cultures of the ancient Greeks and Romans that would later spread viticulture across Europe. The agricultural treatises of the Carthaginian writer Mago were among the most important early texts in the history of wine to record ancient knowledge of winemaking and viticulture. While no original copies of Mago’s or other Phoenician wine writers’ works have survived, there is evidence from quotations of Greek and Roman writers such as Columella that the Phoenicians were skilled winemakers and viticulturists.
They were capable of planning vineyards according to favorable climate and topography, such as which side of a slope was most ideal for grape growing, and producing a wide variety of different wine styles ranging from straw wines made from dried grapes to an early example of the modern Greek wine retsina, made with pine resin as an ingredient. The Phoenicians also spread the use of amphoras (often known as the “Canaanite jar”) for the transport and storage of wine.
Historians think it was shortly after the discovery of wine itself, the alcoholic product of fermented grape juice, that cultures realized its value as a trade commodity. Although wild grapes of the Vitis genus could be found throughout the known world and all could be fermented, it took some degree of knowledge and skill to turn these grapes into palatable wine. This knowledge was passed along the trading routes that emerged from the Caucasus down through Mesopotamia and to the Mediterranean.
Wine, or chemer as the Phoenicians called it, was associated with various Levantine deities. Around 1000 BC, the Mediterranean wine trade exploded, making the Phoenicians and their extensive maritime trade network prime beneficiaries of the increased demand. The Phoenicians not only traded in wine produced in Canaan but also developed markets for wine produced in colonies and port cities around the Mediterranean Sea.