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I’ve gathered that ancient Greeks and Romans watered their wine heavily, up to 90% water. Roman-era Talmudic sources speak of wine not being fit to drink until it had been watered (although mixtures weaker than 1:6 wine-water ratios were not deemed suitable for ritual purposes).

Why was this done? Was it to avoid getting drunk, or was this the preferred flavor? Was the wine spiced (ahem) with intoxicants other than alcohol?

Was wine stronger then—but how do you get strengths greater than 14% without distillation? (IIRC, the Romans did have a form of distillation through freezing: was this so prevalent?)

Or was this a way of making the water safe to drink—but is 2% alcohol content enough to make a difference?

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The answer is very simple: To not get drunk (quickly). Wine contains 10-20% alcohol today, it was a bit stronger back then (there's a Roman story about undiluted wine catching fire when it came too close to a lit candle, can't remember the source). – Yannis Feb 11 '13 at 2:45
I've seen that claim too, but find it hard to accept without specific sources (see my edits). – J. C. Salomon Feb 11 '13 at 3:09
The practice still exists today ... – Drux Feb 11 '13 at 18:41
I don't know about specific spices, but sugar of lead was very common.. made it sweeter but as you can imagine probably caused long term problems. – grayQuant Feb 12 '13 at 5:44
@Yannis Sorry, but it sounds totally false. The highest alcohol content you can reach with fermentation is 14% (just like nowadays wines), and it cannot burn up to 40%. Could it be happen that they are talking about resina or similar wines, and pieces of resin or some oil remained in the wine. – Greg Sep 18 at 20:06

5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Well alcohol does have a strong anti-bacterial effect,and adding water to wine was a way to create more drink as there was very little clean drinking water. During the fermentation process many microbes die, eventually the yeast too dies in the anaerobic environment. I think adding water to wine and letting the two mix for a while would kill a significant percentage of the microbes, perhaps enough to make a safer drink.

Also because everyone, including young children, drank wine all the time from the beginning of the day until night, dilution was important in order to prevent the people from getting to drunk by the end of the day. In effect, the reliance on wine for hydration meant dilution could kill two birds with one stone.

NPR has a very interesting and informative article where they interview Paul Lukacs and his new wine history book. He talks about the necessity of wine dilution according to his research.

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" I think adding water to wine and letting the two mix for a while would kill a significant percentage of the microbes, perhaps enough to make a safer drink. " this statement makes no sense. Why? – ssdecontrol Feb 17 at 17:53
@ssdecontrol I think it was a common practice, but I agree the resulting drink may not be entirely sanitary. Alcohol is anti-bacterial and an environment with enough alcohol will kill off germs. – grayQuant Feb 17 at 17:56
Which is why your statement about "adding water" makes absolutely no sense. Diluting it will make it less effective. – ssdecontrol Feb 17 at 17:57
@ssdecontrol Dilution doesn't make the wine better at sterilization, but it does give you more safe fluid to drink. Start with 1 pint of safe wine and 1 pint of unsafe water. Combine. Wait. Now you have 2 pints of safe(ish) weak wine. For the purposes of this question it doesn't matter if the practice actually worked, it matters if they believed it worked. – Schwern Feb 17 at 23:19
@Schwern ah I misunderstood. Makes sense – ssdecontrol Feb 18 at 0:18

Whist adding wine to water even in small quantities does help to purify it, I don't believe that this was a primary motivation. The water used would most probably have been finest spring water anyway or occasionally sea water. Wine with added water is more refreshing and it also doesn't give as much of a hang over. Roman sources are forever talking about good or bad for the stomach etc and thus this side of healthiness - avoiding hang overs and stomach acidity, can be considered a reason too.

A little sea water gives a more mineral expression and as many of the sites most favoured by the Romans (Falernum, Vesuvius, Messina, Mosel etc) give mineral wines, we can possibly assume that the Romans added sea water to heighten this minerality.

The Greeks certainly sun dried grapes and concentrated musts which might have allowed them to get their wines up to around 16% - mix 50/50 and it's the strength of a Moselle. Mix in 4 parts water and it's still the strength of a light beer. The alcohol is absorbed more readily at this strength and with less ill effect.

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Sources would help for this; please share the research. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 18 at 17:50

I don't have a particular source for this, but I remember my high school Latin teacher telling us that Roman wine was more like a strong, thick concentrate much stronger than the wine we drink today, intended to be diluted before drinking. Think like those 100% berry juices you can buy at health food stores in the US, that are undrinkably tart without adding water.

Moreover, we spent an entire class period learning about the central social role of the person designated to choose the dilution strength at each dinner party, known as the arbiter bibendi, the "drinking master." Choosing the wrong mix (too much water -- wine sucks; too little water -- everyone gets too sloshed) could result in social consequences among the Roman elite, i.e. not being invited to more dinner parties. We read about one of these situations, but I can't remember who the author was. Might have been Horace, or probably someone more lowbrow.

As to why it was made so strong in the first place, I have no clue.

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Shipping a barrel of dilute wine costs the same as a concentrated one, but the concentrate makes more wine to the end user and can be sold for more money. – Oldcat Feb 17 at 19:36
@Oldcat clever, but I wonder if that's actually the reason, or maybe it had more to do with primitive fermentation technologies. – ssdecontrol Feb 17 at 21:12
Fermentation Technology? Even now we just let the stuff sit in a container while the bugs eat sugar and piss out alchohol. – Oldcat Feb 17 at 21:26
@Oldcat thinking about temperature control, grape-squashing style. But you're right it doesn't make much sense – ssdecontrol Feb 17 at 21:28
How would they have achieved the concentration? You can't make wine stronger just by adding more fermentable carbs, because the yeast will still go dormant after they produce a certain amount of alcohol. Some strains are more alcohol-tolerant than others, but basically wine is already about as high in alcohol as you can get with yeast. You also can't concentrate it by boiling or evaporation in the sun, because the alcohol will evaporate faster than the water. Does anyone have an actual historical source for this claim? – Ben Crowell Feb 18 at 17:33

They most likely did not, their wine was probably up to 70% alcohol content. Some of them would actually grind up opium and put it into the wine, which causied hallucigenic effects. They were really into getting f***ed up

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Extensive discussion from contemporary sources indicates that the wine was diluted for drinking. And how would the Greeks or Romans gotten wine to 70% alcohol? – J. C. Salomon Feb 17 at 20:58
The one that used to parties was most likely deluded and you can do that by just addinh water. You can distill wine to higher concentrations then some liquors, or you can fortify it to almost hundred percent alcohol content – mossberg Feb 17 at 21:01
@mossberg that isn't wine anymore; it's brandy. But you also happen to have no idea what you're talking about. – ssdecontrol Feb 17 at 21:11
Brandy mixed into wine fortifies it, they also had this technology during the Greeks – mossberg Feb 17 at 21:21
Just how strong can you get your distilled wine using techniques then available? Discussions online of freeze-distillation suggest 25–35% as a maximum without a very strong freezer. – J. C. Salomon Feb 18 at 0:18

According to this well sourced article, wine was diluted to reduce its strength, in order to avoid over-inebriation. Those who did not drink it diluted were seen as barbaric, uncultured, or besotted.

There are claims on wikipedia and other online sources that the ancients drank diluted wine or small-beer to avoid water-borne illness, but I can't seem to find a scholarly confirmation of this. Indeed, many Islamic cultures certainly got along without wine or beer.

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How would containing a small amount of wine remove pathogens from water? – Michael Hoffman Feb 11 '13 at 18:19
@MichaelHoffman: Exactly how an alcohol swab kills bacteria on the skin - because alcohol is highly toxic to many, possibly even most, microbes. – Pieter Geerkens Feb 16 at 4:13
Just because the ancients were not aware of the mechanism why these drinks are safer, they still could drink for the benefit. Pure water was drink in few places if possible. For similar reason they drunk (stll drink) tea in the East. – Greg Sep 18 at 20:11

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