‘Take Greek wine or Rhenish wine with honey’: an oenological journey

I’ve been editing my book, How to Cook in the Fourteenth Century, and was revisiting the recipe Vyaund Ryal from Richard II’s Forme of Cury in order to nail down a few facts for the commentary on this dish.

I ended up spending rather a lot of research time trying to establish what the two wines mentioned in the recipe’s method, Greek and Rhenish, would have actually been like back in Richard’s day.

.lxlvij. Vyaund Ryal

Take wyne creke oþer rynysche wyne & hony claryfyed þerwiþ; tak flour of rys, pynes, poudour gynger oþer peper & canel oþer flour of canel, poudour of clowes, safroun, sugur cypre, mulleberyes oþer saundres, & medle alle þese togyder; boyle it and salt hit & loke hit be stondyng; & messe hit forth.

97. Royal dish

Take either Greek wine or Rhenish wine with clarified honey; take rice flour, pine nuts, powder of ginger or pepper, and cinnamon or cinnamon buds, powder of cloves, saffron, Cyprus sugar, mulberries or sanders, and mix all these together; boil it and salt it, and make sure it be thick; and serve forth.

Edited text and translation © 2021 Christopher Monk. Image: Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7, folio 48v (detail). University of Manchester. By Permission. Click on image to go to the facsimile.

I’m not entirely convinced that my oenological journey has ended quite yet, but what have I found so far?

wyne creke

First, I should explain that ‘Greek wine’ translates ‘wyne creke’ in the John Rylands Library version of Forme of Cury, the only official copy contemporary with King Richard. Other, later versions have various forms, including greke, cryk, and even crete, the later seemingly alluding to wine specifically from Crete, the largest of the Greek islands.

According to Susan Rose, author of The Wine Trade in Medieval Europe 1000-1500, ‘Greek wine’ was one of several English names given to ‘sweet wine’, the most highly prized wine of the Middle Ages.

Rose explains that it was made from the white muscadel grape, and it was not actually produced in Greece but ‘made in the Greek style from vines grown in southern Italy’. She describes it as an ‘intensely sweet’ wine and relatively high in alcohol, and states that it was far different from the light red wines of Bordeaux or the thin white Rhenish wines that were common in medieval England – more on Rhenish wines later.

Finally, Rose observes that the distinctiveness of Greek wine and its allied wines – malmsey, Romeney, Vernage and Tyre – was due to late harvesting of the grapes, which created fruit more like raisins than the plump grapes of more northern regions. [Rose, pp. 101-2]

Was Greek wine always sweet?

If you look back at the Vyaund Ryal recipe, above, you’ll see how the cook directs that one should either use Greek wine or Rhenish wine containing clarified honey – clarified honey is honey that has been heated and skimmed in order to remove impurities. We may infer from this that Greek wine was indeed sweet because the alternative Rhenish wine needed to be sweetened in order to approximate it.

The sweetness of ‘Greek’ wine seems to be corroborated by its use in other Forme of Cury recipes. One example, Conynges in Syryp, is a rabbit dish in which Greek wine and vinegar are combined with spices to create a sauce that conforms to one of the characteristic flavour profiles of medieval cookery, namely, sweet-and-sour. Since no sugar or honey is required for this dish (though currants, which are sweet, are there), it seems fairly certain that the Greek wine of this recipe was indeed sweet wine.

Similarly, we have Peerus in Confyt (pears in syrup), in which the cook is instructed to make a syrup (‘syryp’) from either Greek wine or Vernage, the latter a wine that the poet John Gower, contemporary with Richard II, alludes to as sweet when he writes, in Confessio Amantis, the words: ‘A thought so sweet in my courage, that never […] vernage was half as sweet to drink’.

However, a further mention of ‘Greek’ wine in another Forme of Cury recipe may suggest it may not always have been sweet – or at least not sweet enough!

For the dish known as Mawmene (an English adaptation of the Arabic dish Ma’mūniyyah) the instructions are given to, ‘Take a pottle [half a gallon] of Greek wine and 2 pounds of sugar’ and to ‘clarify the sugar with a quantity of the wine’ – so more skimming away of impurities, this time from the sugar.  The wine is then strained through a strainer into an earthenware pot. Then some of this wine, evidently now significantly sweeter, is cast into a pot with rice flour, pine nuts, dates, and lots of spices, and then all this is cooked, before shredded capon, or pheasant, is added.

This dish is meant to be quite a sweet dish, as we can understand from its Arabic origins – sugar is used, for example, in all three versions of Ma’mūniyyah in a thirteenth-century Syrian cookery work. But when does sweet become too sweet? If Greek wine is already ‘intensely sweet’, as Rose puts it, why would it be further sweetened with so much sugar? Isn’t that just overkill?

I confess, I’m not confident of the right answer. It may be that in this particular case, in the experience of the particular master cook proffering this recipe, and at this particular time, i.e., the end of the fourteenth century, the ‘Greek wine’ concerned was not in fact an intensely sweet wine, even though it certainly ended up being extremely sweet, based on the amount of sugar added to it.

But I must contrast this with all the other associations of Greek wine with sweet wine, including perhaps the most explicit of all, in John Russell’s 15th-century work Boke of Nurture, in which Russell’s narrator urges his apprentice:

The namys of swete wynes y wold þat ye them knewe:

Vernage, vernagelle, wyne Cute, pyment, Raspise, Muscadelle of grew,

Rompney of modoñ, Bastard, Tyre, Oȝey, Torrentyne of Ebrew.

Greke, Malevesyñ, Caprik, & Clarey whañ it is newe.

The names of sweet wines I want you to know them:

Vernage… Greek, etc.

John Russell, Boke of Nurture, lines 117-120; translation my own

rynysche wyne

Rose observes that the wines produced along the Rhine and Moselle and in Alsace were ‘always known collectively as Rhenish by medieval drinkers’ [Rose, p. 96]. She does not offer a categorical identification of medieval Rhenish wine(s) though she makes the vague observation that it ‘seems to have been of the same general type’ as the ‘thin white “french” wines which had been most popular in the thirteenth century’ [p. 101].

The elbling grape

This grape appears to have been the most widely grown grape in the medieval Rhine district.

Image: Dr. Joachim Schmid, FG RZ, FA Geisenheim, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

Red or white?

How sure can we be that Rhenish wine was white or always white? Intriguingly, the version of the Vyaund Ryal dish, above, in the slightly later Harley manuscript version of Forme of Cury gives ‘gode red wyne’ instead of Rhenish wine. But the method as a whole in this version reads rather clumsily and betrays poor understanding on the part of the scribe copying the recipe, as it indicates that both wines are to be used and, most strange of all, that the honey is ‘ifryed iclarified’, ‘fried clarified’ [folio 104r]. It strikes me that the scribe didn’t know what to make of ‘Rhenish wine’ (however it was spelt in his exemplar manuscript), so just made a stab in the dark.

I did come across a late thirteenth-century reference to Rhenish wine, written in Latin, in the online Middle English Dictionary [Rīnish adj., 1(b)] that perhaps hints at it being a white wine, though it’s hardly explicit. From the work known as Select Cases Concerning the Law Merchant (which I’ve now ordered) we learn that some corrupt trader was in the habit of mixing Rhenish wine with white wine (‘vini reneys cum albo vino’), from which we might infer that he was letting down Rhenish wine with another, inferior white wine.

One source I was able to check (so far, scholarly or academic sources have proven rather difficult to find or access) suggested that Elbling, a white grape still grown today in Germany in small quantities, was the most widely grown grape in the medieval Rhine district (Rheingau in German). [https://glossary.wein.plus/elbling accessed 1 September, 2021.]

However, there is also some limited evidence for the growing of the red pinot noir grape (known in German as Spätburgunder), though the earliest documentation for this is 1470, so considerably later than Richard II’s time. The hypotheses that Emperor Charlemagne (742-814) brought pinot noir to the Rhine and had it planted in his palace grounds and that his great-grandson Charles the Fat (839-888) planted it near Lake Constance are both unproven though not beyond the realm of possibilities. [https://glossary.wein.plus/noble-pinot accessed 1 September, 2021.]

So, when it comes to the Rhenish wine in the recipe Vyaund Ryal, I’m definitely leaning to the ‘thin white wine’ conclusion of Susan Rose. I think the fact that the recipe says to add sanders, a well-known red food colourant in medieval cookery works, suggests that the dish doesn’t have a red colour before it is added, and so neither of the two wines, Greek or Rhenish, is red.

But I think the oenological jury is still out on whether there was some variation on the sweetness of Greek wine and the whiteness of Rhenish wine in Richard II’s day.

I perhaps need to make a decision of some kind on this, as I am presently developing the Vyaund Ryal recipe for a YouTube video. What wine will I use? You will have to tune in to find out.

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Selected works consulted

Charles Perry (ed. & trans.), Scents and Flavours: A Syrian Cookbook (New York University Press, 2017).

Susan Rose, The Wine Trade in Medieval Europe 1000-1500 (Bloomsbury, 2011), pp. 101-02.

John Russell, The Boke of Nurture Folowyng Englondis Gise, in Early English Meals and Manners, ed. Frederick J. Furnivall (Early English Text Society, 1868; Gutenberg online edition).

Image credit:

Monk sneaking a drink: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Published by Christopher Monk

Dr Christopher Monk is creating Modern Medieval Cuisine

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