Tools for Wine Appreciation

from the Middle Ages till the 19th Century

Mariëlla Beukers

In the modern world of wine, there is a distinction between beverages and fine wines. A beverage is a simple wine for every day, to quench a thirst or drink without further paying attention to its colour, smell or taste. A bar wine, if you will. Fine wine is everything a beverage is not. Fine wines are appreciated for their place of origin, their maker, their colour, aromas and taste. A fine wine can be discussed with drinking partners, is enjoyed with gourmet food, but certainly also on its own, for its own qualities.

Very often it is assumed that in the past all wines were beverages. The general assumption on wine through the ages is that it was either too sour or too sweet, almost undrinkable, spoilt easily and had no merits other than slaking unquenchable thirsts. People were supposed to have no idea how to enjoy a good wine, since there was no fine wine to appreciate.

However, several sources tell a different story. We only have to look at the hundreds of paintings of the Golden Age in the Netherlands to notice different types of glasses, which upon closer inspection hold different kinds of wine. Why would anyone use a special type of glass for a specific type of wine, without any sense of wine appreciation? Moreover, those same paintings show us other tools that lead us to think that wine appreciation and fine wines were most certainly part of the lives of our forefathers.

In this presentation, I plan to look at three different ‘tools’ that suggest that wine cannot have been all simply beverages , and that those tools can illustrate the development of wine appreciation. These tools are the following.

  • Containers for storage, from amphora’s to barrels and bottles, concentrating on the glass bottle. After the invention of the cylindrical glass bottle ánd the invention of a stopper that was made to fit, wines were far better able to develop fully to the drink we know today.
  • Containers for drinking, from earthenware beakers to glasses, concentrating on different shapes of glasses for different types of wine. Rhine wines were, as paintings show us, preferably drunk from green tinted or colourless ‘roemers’, for example.
  • Containers to cool wines. Looking at paintings and prints and researching museum collections, wine coolers can be found from the Middle Ages until this day. Just like we enjoy a glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc on a summer’s day, the good citizens of Holland loved their Rhenish cooled in ice water.

All these containers had their role in the appreciation of wine. Moreover, next to evidence from paintings and actual objects, there are also several texts that tell us more about wine appreciation. We will have a look at some of those texts too. The presentation will focus on texts, paintings and objects from the Middle Ages until the 19th century.


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