When my favourite aunt died we held a party to celebrate her life – and we drank wine at it. Not just wine, in fact, but champagne (although in the mind of most consumers a death is the one time it is inappropriate to drink champagne she had loved it, and it seemed entirely appropriate). We don’t talk about death and wine so often but there is a long historical link.
I’ve just visited an ancient wine press from the Minoan era at Vathipetro in Crete – said by the Greeks to be the most ancient in the world (although probably only the oldest in Europe, as there is an older one in Armenia https://prehistoricarch.blogspot.com/2011/01/at-6000-years-old-wine-press-is-oldest.html). This prompted our guide to talk about another Minoan press at Archanes, nearby, which is situated by a cemetery. Wine was probably used in the funeral rites of the Minoans – hence the need to have it on tap at a burial ground – so to speak. There is a logic to this. Wine and the vine were the ancient symbols of the cycle of life and death around the Mediterranean. Its annual life cycle mirrored that of people, it reflected ideas of fertility and was – after all – a magical drink capable of transforming the way drinkers felt.
The Minoans believed in an afterlife and were often buried with grave goods. Some, it seems, have been found with miniature wine presses in their grave. The representation that the deceased was a wine maker perhaps? Or a connoisseur? Or maybe that when moving on to the afterlife they wanted to have the opportunity to go on making their favourite drink as compensation a for having left the world of the living?
Even today, it seems, wine remains key in some Cretan wine rituals. Often, when people die they are buried but then dug up some years later for a final reburial. Before this happens, however, their bones are washed in red wine – the most symbolic local liquid which could represent their passing.