My understanding is that people in ancient Greece and Rome used to dilute their wine before drinking it. Do we know the ABV values for diluted and undiluted wines?

EDIT: I realize there is a similar question about why they diluted their wines, but I'm specifically looking for the amount by which it was diluted. Basically, would the ancient Greeks and Romans consider us savages for drinking our current 10-14% wine.

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    Does this answer your question? Why did Greeks and Romans dilute their wine?
    – Tomas By
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 16:02
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    Sort of, but I would like to know the actual percentages, if possible
    – alexgbelov
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 16:04
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    It varies a bit between yeast strains, but somewhere around 13-15% the yeast dies of alcohol poisoning. (With enough sugar, one can brew beer to these concentrations also. Don't drive after consuming any.) Even today it is challenging to stop a fermentation once started, so in general fermentation in ancient times will have always proceeded until either the sugar is all consumed or the yeast dies off as above - whichever occurs first. Where weather permits, freeze-distillation may have been attempted for higher alcohol concentrations. Note: yeast only discovered in late medieval time. Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 16:24
  • @TomasBy: Related, but not a dupe; that one asks why they diluted their wine, while this one asks to what degree.
    – Vikki
    Commented Mar 10, 2020 at 1:38
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    @BenCrowell: To clarify: Somewhere around 13-15% - alcohol by volume - the yeast dies - effectively, though it's spores remain and can be used to start another fermentation. Commented Mar 10, 2020 at 6:16

2 Answers 2


That is very difficult to put a single number on.

Like today, ethanol content in wines ranges from 5–25%, but usually between 9–16%.

It depends a bit on how strong one prefers, or how the Greeks preferred the ethanol content to be.

Traditionally it was that one consumption unit 'equals' – or let's say 'corresponds' – to 10g pure ethanol. (One shot of schnaps, one beer, one glass of wine.) But the Greeks went by taste and aroma more than anything else, despite still measuring the virtue of moderation by the amount of cups consumed.

Then there is this cultural thing of Greeks thinking low of anyone drinking his wine undiluted. As a drunkard or guilty of barbarism. That does of course not exclude people like Alexander the Great and his philoi friends doing just that.

For how much the wines were diluted we can only turn to the textual evidence.

Aristophanes for example gives in Plutus an allusion to the following advice for getting a nice wine fit for a symposion:

  • (too) strong mix: half wine, half water
  • nice mix: two parts of wine, three parts of water

But a point blank quote might satisfy your curiosity:

The uses of wine
Wine had many uses for the Greeks. It was of course important as a food and drink (it was doubtless often safer than water), and the symposium, which centred around the drinking of wine, was one of the most important Greek social forms.

Wine was almost always drunk diluted with water:

the ratio varied, normally ranging between 2 : 3 and 1 : 3, which would give a range in alcoholic strength of about 3 to 6% and generally at the lower end of this range (roughly the same as British draught beer).

Weaker mixtures are disparaged in comedy (and even 1 : 3 called for a good wine),

but 1 : 1 was considered by some dangerous to the health, and the regular drinking of unmixed wine, a habit confined to barbarians, was believed by some Spartans to have caused the insanity and death of their King Cleomenes. The mixed wine was also normally cooled, sometimes in special pottery coolers; the very rich added snow.
— Jancis Robinson & Julia Harding: "The Oxford Companion to Wine", Oxford University Press, 2015.

But that is just a very rough estimate for the history of Roman and Greek wine.

While Pliny mentions a ratio of 1 : 8 is found (Natural History 14,6,54), in Homer's Odyssey even a ration of 1 part wine to 20 parts water is mentioned:

And he had given it me because we had protected him with his child and wife [200] out of reverence; for he dwelt in a wooded grove of Phoebus Apollo. And he gave me splendid gifts: of well-wrought gold he gave me seven talents, and he gave me a mixing-bowl all of silver; and besides these, wine, wherewith he filled twelve jars in all, [205] wine sweet and unmixed, a drink divine. Not one of his slaves nor of the maids in his halls knew thereof, but himself and his dear wife, and one house-dame only. And as often as they drank that honey-sweet red wine he would fill one cup and pour it into twenty measures of water, [210] and a smell would rise from the mixing-bowl marvellously sweet; then verily would one not choose to hold back. — (Odyssey IX, 208)

Note that such dilutions are most probably the result of using a very aged wine. Since they weren't sealed as good as now common, they became quite syrupy. But apparently not bad at all, to ancient palates.

Everyone seems to have agreed on which these were, and at the pinnacle of repute were wines that came from the slopes of Mount Falernus, to the north of Naples. Made from the Aminean grape, these golden or amber-colored wines were probably high in alcoholic content, since Pliny the Elder recorded that they might “take light” when a ame was applied to them. The most fabled Falernian vintage was harvested in 121 b.c.e. Not only was it widely praised at the time, it was served to Julius Caesar a hundred years later, presumably to his entire satisfaction because someone was apparently brave enough to offer it again to Caligula in 39 c.e., when it was 160 years old.
— Ian Tattersall & Rob Desalle: "A Natural History of Wine", Yale University Press: New Haven, London, 2015.

More on the archaelogical side of things:
— Patrick E. McGovern, Stuart J. Fleming & Solomon H. Katz: "The Origins and Ancient History of Wine", Food and Nutrition in History and Anthropology, Routledge, London, New York, 1996.

Accurately analysing archaeological finds towards their ethanol content is usually impossible. Empty vessels are sometimes analysed to ascertain their overall content. But proxy substances like tartaric acid can only be used to identify not measure the liquids. The presumably oldest liquid wine bottle from 300 AD remains unopened and is thought to have lost all its ethanol anyway by now.

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    Isn't the alcohol content of undiluted wine largely defined by which yeast is fermenting the alcohol? Have the popular yeast cultures changed so dramatically in the last 2000 years that it is no longer possible to decide on the alcohol content of wine of ancient days? (What about the actual sealed wine amphoras found on sunken ships? I'm guessing it was no longer wine but vinegar, but should that allow for some accurate calculations?)
    – fgysin
    Commented Mar 10, 2020 at 12:16
  • @fgysinreinstateMonica The sugar content also plays a role. For long distance transport they made often very concentrated, and sweet, 'wines' from dried, grapes, raisins, sometimes even honey added. Most yeasts that start the wine don't survive the higher alc concentrations so that only a few 'brewer's yeasts' finish it. Even vinegar escapes quite easily so tat for this vintage only guesstimates are available. Commented Mar 10, 2020 at 15:11
  • 1
    Very informative response, thank you! Is it possible that the 1 in 20 part wine was meant to highlight its divinity? Like, only the gods could create a wine so potent that it is still good when diluted so heavily?
    – alexgbelov
    Commented Mar 10, 2020 at 19:35

It seems virtually impossible to know this. Fermentation normally proceeds until the yeast go dormant because their own alcohol waste becomes too concentrated for them to tolerate. However, the level that they can tolerate depends greatly on the strain of yeast. Today, you can buy champagne yeast with a high alcohol tolerance, or other strains with much lower alcohol tolerances. They produce characteristic flavors, e.g., Sierra Nevada pale ale is famous for the taste it gets from the strain of yeast they use.

We know nothing about what strains of yeast the ancient Greeks and Romans used. They didn't know that yeast existed. In that era, your beer or wine would be naturally colonized by wild yeast from the air, but you wouldn't know that was happening because microorganisms weren't known. Any strains they may have used then would long since have mixed, evolved, etc.

Today, we use a hydrometer to measure the specific gravity of wine and beer as it's brewing. This can be used to calculate the alcohol content, since alcohol is less dense than water. But the ancients didn't have any such technology, or the mathematical and scientific knowledge to carry out and analyze the measurements.

  • There is a good discussion on ancient recipes mentioning yeast being used in starters for beer making, with a little bit of cross over on wine making over at: alcohol.stackexchange.com/questions/401/… In early days, the blessing of crushed grapes in a vat would include the pouring of wine from a bottle (presumably containing lees with resident good yeast) involving a previous vintage. That would have acted as a starter. Classic Bordeaux yeast, with an alcohol tolerance of 15% +, might have been similar to what the Romans worked with.
    – Jess
    Commented Oct 7, 2021 at 5:31

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