The Enduring Viticulture of Iran
It was approximately 36 years ago when Iran was hailed as one of the great producers of fine wines. Prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran, then Persia, boasted of a rich and long history of viticulture. Some can even say that they are the cradle of winemaking in Western Asia.
Through the rise and fall of empires, ancient kings, clerics, and poets, embraced Persian wine in different ways. They used it for medicine, revelry, and purification. Wine drinking may have been subdued when Islam came to Iran, but it was not totally erased from practice. And in spite of the alcohol ban in the country, its wine culture endures.
The Great Persian Antidote
Iranian literature credits winemaking to the Persian king, King Jamshid.
It was said that he once dreamt of a snake strangling a bird, and in exchange of saving it from death, he was given bright green seeds. These seeds, after being planted, grew blueberries on its vines. After tasting the juice that came from the berries, he found it too bitter, and even declared it poisonous. And for the safety of his kingdom, he had all the blueberries picked, placed in jars, and stored underground.
One of the beautiful girls in Jamshid’s harem later suffered a heartache after being rejected by a king. She decided to end her life by consuming the spoiled poisonous grapes until she passed out. However, to her astonishment, she woke up the next day invigorated and thrilled to live her life again!
The girl reported this intoxicating “cure” to the king, and she was rewarded generously in return. The king drank it again, and was so convinced that he ordered his people to use it as medicine. Reference to the legend bore Persian synonyms to wine, such as shah daru (king’s medicine), nush daru (wine medicine), daru-ye gham (medicine for grief) and bihush daru (medicine that makes you unconscious).
Shahnama, a Persian poet, wrote of a caesarian operation in Rudaba where a Zoroastrian priest told a patient to drink wine in order to be unconscious and numb to the pain. Though unproven, this hints to the ancient Persian knowledge of anesthesia during the 10th century. In other Zoroastrian texts, priests presented wine as “nourishment” to women giving birth.
The Shirazi Controversy
Quite the debate these days is the coincidence in the naming of the Shiraz wine of Australia and the Syrah wine of France. These are both named after Shiraz, one of Iran’s oldest cities known for its poets, literature and wine. In the 9th century, Shiraz was named Persia’s wine capital for producing the “Shirazi” wine, the finest liquor in the Middle East.
The grapes that were grown in the area had a diluted character to it, thanks to the city’s state of irrigation back then. The best Shirazi wines came from grapes grown in terraced vineyards in the village of Khollar, which is the same village where King Jamshid was said to first introduce wine.
For centuries, Shirazi wine was made through furious pressing, which produced two types of wine – sweet white wines and dry whites. The sweet whites tasted like “old sherry”, while the dry whites had a dry and bitter kick.
Proof of the Shirazi viniculture is also seen in Marco Polo’s accounts of vines. These vines were said to be casted with pulleys and weights such that it grew on one side of the Persian house and crawled down to the other side. Shiraz wine also turned up in diaries of European travelers until the 19th century.
This then gives sense to how the Shirazi grapes – currently known as Syrah, the famous French grape of Rhone Valley – may have reached France. One story claims that Phoenicians brought Shiraz vines to Rhone, while another story tells of the French Knight Gaspard de Sterimberg, who discovered the grapes in the outskirts of Shiraz.
The knight had taken home several vine cuttings back to France, and he grew these in his farm in Hermitage, Rhone Valley. These two theories, however, cannot make sense of the fact that ancient Iranian Shirazi wines are all whites, and modern day Shiraz or Syrah grapes produced only reds. Modern DNA testing had consequentially traced origins of Syrah and Shiraz grapes to Mondeuse Blanc and Dureze grapes, which were indigenous to – yet again – Rhone Valley, France.
Another lesser known theory is about an ethnic group called the Basques. It was believed that they have been trading with the Persians, hence explaining how the now defunct Iranian Shirazi wine reached France. Although different in its roots, both the ancient Shirazi dry whites and the modern Shirazi reds received similar reception given both of their intense flavors and high tannin levels. There is no proof to this yet, but it would be quite a remarkable story if this was to be proven true.
Come What “Mey”
Today, “Mey”, or the Iranian production and consumption of wine, is forbidden due to Islamic laws. In 2005, the town of Khollar along with its wine factories, refineries and hillsides had been shriveled out of existence. While members of religious minorities are still allowed to brew, ferment, and drink in the privacy of their own homes, they are strictly forbidden to trade. Vineyards in Shiraz, Quchan, Qazvin, Urmia, Malayer, and Takestan remain in operation, but serving only to produce non-alcoholic goods, like grapes and dried raisins.
All these have drastically curbed the local demand for wine, but not entirely. Black markets and homemade wines still allow Iranians to enjoy wine behind closed doors. For instance, a 28-year old Tehranian spoke of the fun he and his friends have whenever they “gather to stamp down grapes in the bathtub.” Also, another Iranian turned his backyard into a mini vineyard, which allows him to make wine in his poorly-lit basement.
Other Iranians have chosen to leave the territory, and pursue the passion for winemaking in other parts of the world. Among them include the esteemed labels of Darioush from Napa, by Darioush Khaledi; Pakravan-Papi from Tuscany, by Amineh Pakravan (the daughter of an Iranian general) and her husband Enzo Papi; and Maysara Winery in Oregon, by Moe and Flora Momtazi.