Viking Viticulture and the Vikings

The Vikings were renowned for their lavish drinking habits, enjoying beer and mead. But a new discovery suggests that they went beyond brewing and made wine too.

Scientists have found grape seeds at the Tisso settlement near modern Denmark that date back to 780-980 AD. The seeds’ composition suggest that they were used for making wine.

Origin

Despite their reputation for raiding and battle, Vikings were a surprisingly agricultural people. They cultivated crops and reared livestock, often on self-sufficient farms. The Vikings were also skilled craftsmen and brewers, producing beer, mead, and cider. They brewed mead in particular to drink on occasion, since the nectar of the gods was considered a beverage fit for royalty.

Mead is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages in Scandinavia and was widely enjoyed by both the common people and the elite. It was believed to boost virility and enhance sex life. In addition to being served at ceremonial occasions, mead was used in religious rites as well. Unlike modern beehives that feature removable frames, Viking Age hives were made from straw domes that could not be dismantled, making it difficult to collect pure honey.

The Vikings’ fascination with mead may have contributed to their interest in wine. In addition to its taste, wine was a symbol of power and wealth for those in leadership positions at the time. For this reason, many Vikings likely wanted to cultivate grapes in order to produce wine on a large scale for consumption and trade.

While there is no proof that Vinland existed, the first written accounts of a Norse voyage to North America can be traced back to the Graenlandinga saga and Eiriks saga rauda (Erik the Red’s Saga). These texts mention the discovery of both lumber and grape vines in the area now known as Canada and Newfoundland.

In the sagas, Thorfinn Karlsefni, an Icelandic navigator with Leif Erikson, sails south from Greenland to find Vinland. After sailing through Helluland, Markland, and the Wonderstrands, he arrives at a place called Hop. The land is described as abundant with grapes and currants.

Characteristics

The Vikings were a fearsome warrior race that invaded lands across Europe from the late eighth century to the early 11th century. They were ruthless raiders and skilled sea-farers. They quickly swarm over villages and towns, killing, stealing and burning, before returning to their ships.

In Viking society, men were in charge. Only men went on raids, exploration and trading missions. Women stayed home and minded the farm, along with boys who learned all of the men’s work from their fathers, brothers and uncles. Women were important members of the community; it was considered shameful for a man to harm a woman.

Viking farms grew barley, rye and oats to make beer, flatbread, stews and porridge. They also raised cattle, sheep and pigs. Vikings ate what they could grow or hunt, fish and gather. They drank ale and mead, a strong fermented beverage made from honey. They enjoyed feasting; a typical meal was meat, fish, fowl, vegetables and wild greens, with bread and fruit.

The Vikings had a spirited culture with outdoor games like running, wrestling and tug of war called toga-honk. They also engaged in horse fighting, where two stallions would battle until one ran away or was killed.

Law and justice were handled through assemblies called a Thing, which was an early version of today’s parliaments and courts. Disputes were heard at the local, community Thing, which was dominated by powerful families, and then referred to a higher level Thing for review. Malefactors found guilty were fined or declared semi-outlaw, meaning they could not receive help from anyone or their property was confiscated. This was a terrible punishment and many people fled the country rather than face it.

The Norse/Viking Raids

The Norse/Viking Raids, Expansion and Settlements

Climate

The Vikings’ great adventure may be less a tale of exploration and conquest than one of climate change. The Viking Age began around 800 when Scandinavia experienced a warming period that enabled farming to expand. But that warmth ended in the 12th century, with the first hints of what scholars call the Little Ice Age.

As a result, the Vikings moved on, abandoning Greenland and relocating to England. They left behind ruins of longhouses, farmland, and shipbuilding sites. Yet they seem to have disappeared from those areas with little fanfare, and it’s increasingly believed that the Vikings simply got too cold for them to survive.

This past May, Videnskab and her colleagues stood atop a promontory overlooking Borgpollen, a large inland bay inside Vestvagoya, the largest Viking settlement ever found in Greenland. It’s surrounded by hilly farmland that slopes down to the water, where an estimated 22 stone-and-turf boathouses once lined the shore.

Videnskab points out that the ruins are on the site of a wealthy chieftan’s domain, the home of a powerful dynasty that ruled here 1,000 years ago until an apparent decline. And though there are many reasons for that decline, one likely factor was a change in the local weather.

When explorer Leif Eriksson first sailed up Greenland’s west coast in 1,000 AD, the area was supposedly replete with high-quality timber and a plethora of wild grape vines, which influenced his name for the region, Vinland (Land of Wine). But grapes need warmer weather to thrive—and the climate in Greenland and Iceland is not optimal for cultivating them. That’s why the Norse Sagas sometimes mention wine, suggesting that Vikings brought the technique along from their travels abroad or acquired it in trade with places where grapes could grow.

statue of Leif Eriksson

A statue of Leif Eriksson, discover of Vinland, from Duluth, Minnesota

Varietals

Viking grapes are characterized by high growth power, so they quickly develop into large spreading bushes and give a high yield. They are well adapted to various soils, including fatty southern chernozems and podzolic ones of the Russian non-chernozem region. However, they do not tolerate heat and sharp drops of temperature in summer; these factors affect the quality of the crop and make the bunches smaller. They also do not withstand droughts, and waterlogging has a depressing effect on them. They are easy to cultivate – they grow without any problems on trellises and in close proximity to houses, utility buildings and fences.

It is impossible to know what exact varietals the Vikings drank at Vinland, but it is possible that they made wine using Castel, Cayuga, Vidal Blanc or L’Acadia blanc, all of which are hardy and can withstand rugged temperatures. These varietals were likely grown wild in Vinland, and it’s also very probable that they were used for winemaking in Norway and Denmark as well.

Today, this variety is popular among winegrowers in the Moscow region, Primorsky Territory and Urals. Its berries are in high demand among retail buyers, and the vine and grape clusters tolerate long transportation quite well. They are good for processing into homemade juices, compotes and preserves, and are also suitable for fresh consumption. Their attractive appearance and useful composition are what make them so desirable. Moreover, the fruit’s taste doesn’t fade for a long time. The bunches can be kept hanging on bushes all through September. They are convenient to transport over long distances, and this is why they’re a very valuable commodity for farmers who produce them for sale.

Viticulture and the Vikings

walls of Constantinople

The remnants today of some of the walls of Constantinople as they would have existed in Viking times. Such was the impregnability of the fortress that the Vikings of Eastern Euripe knew the city as Miklagaror, or the ‘Great Stronghold’.

Mead and the Vikings

If the Vikings are not usually discussed in terms of their wine consumption it is surely because they are conventionally understood to have consumed a staple of other alcoholic beverages. Beer was one of these, but the favourite beverage of the Norse peoples in the ninth and tenth centuries was mead.

Mead is made from fermented honey and water, while other ingredients such as spices, fruit, grains and hops are often added to it to give it a more nuanced flavour. It is effectively a type of honey wine. Like grape wine, it can vary very considerably in terms of its alcohol content, with some mead being as low as 4% ABV, while others are as strong as 20% ABV. The ingredients for mead are plentiful in Northern Europe and there are many ancient Greek and Roman authors who mentioned the beverage as being widely consumed by the people they perceived as barbarians on the edges of the known world.[4]

Mead was central to Viking culture. Not only was it consumed widely in the longhouses of the Norse people across Norway, Sweden and Denmark, but it also featured in their religion, mythology and legends. For instance, in Norse mythology Ksavir, a semi-divine being born of two groups of the gods, was said to have been killed by the dwarves Fjalar and Galar, who the drained Ksavir’s blood off before mixing it with honey to make the fabled Mead of Poetry.

This mythical beverage was said to imbue anyone who drank it with the power of being a skald or ‘scholar’. Essentially the myth is a metaphor for alcohol being involved in poetic inspiration. Many other elements of Norse myth attest to the centrality of honey wine to their culture.[5]

Wine and the Danes and Norsemen in Western Europe

Yet for all that mead was intrinsic to the Norse diet, in the course of their voyages far and wide across Europe in the ninth century they began to develop an appetite for grape wine. This was as a result of Viking raids on and settlement in certain areas where viticulture was practiced extensively, notably France and the Iberian Peninsula. Indeed there is a specific time period to which we can trace the origins of Viking assaults on these regions. In 844 a Viking raid was launched against the city of Seville in southern Spain.

At the time this was controlled by the Arab Umayyad Emirate, but wine consumption was widespread within the Arab world in the ninth century despite the later prohibition thereupon. Just a year later the first of several sieges of Paris by the Vikings was initiated. Raids like these would have brought the Vikings into direct contact with cultures where wine was in plentiful supply and if the entry from The Annals of St Bertin mentioned at the outset is anything to go by the Vikings developed a taste for grape wine quickly.[6]

In tandem grape wine also became an element of Norse mythology. The Poetic Edda, a compendium of Old Norse narrative poems which were composed in the late tenth and eleventh centuries, includes the poem Grímnismál. In this Odin, the king of the Norse gods, is described as having companions in the form of wolves called Geri and Freki. These he feeds plentifully, but Odin, the god of war and master of Valhalla, the Norse underworld for great warriors, is described as subsisting solely on wine. It attests to the strength of viticulture amongst the Norse peoples by the early eleventh century that this tale was included in the Poetic Edda.

Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in ‘Vinland’

A modern recreation of a Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in ‘Vinland’ (Wine Land) in North America, as it might have appeared in the early eleventh century

Production

As for alcoholic beverages, Vikings certainly did enjoy their tipples. Their lower classes drank beer, which was easier to produce in the northern climate, while the upper-class enjoyed mead. Mead, made from honey and fermented with varying spices, fruits, and grains, can vary greatly in flavor and strength.

While we know that Vikings were quite alcoholic, until recently, we didn’t think they actually produced wine themselves. However, excavations in Denmark have turned up grape seeds, which resemble those from the time of the Viking Age. The discovery is exciting for wine historians as it could mean that Vikings were capable of producing and consuming wine.

Interestingly enough, grapes were grown in Europe long before the Viking Age. In fact, cultivation of grapes in Scandinavian countries began almost 5,000 years before the Viking Age with the Funnelbeaker culture in the early Bronze Age, about 4500 BC.

Back to the show, Ivar attempts to broker a peace deal with Alfred but is turned down, much to the dismay of his wife. Then we get another big battle, in which the Vikings and Saxons line up and charge aimlessly at one another. This is a bit frustrating to watch as realism has gone out the window when it comes to Vikings and their battle tactics. Sieges and small-scale skirmishes are far more common.

After the Vikings raid Paris, Ragnar announces that he intends to return to Wessex to claim land promised by King Ecbert. Helga is not happy about this, but Rollo and Bjorn want to go. Meanwhile, Floki is consumed with guilt over his actions, and Helga leaves him.

Further Reading

  1. Sverrir Jakobsson, The Varangians: In God’s Holy Fire (London, 2020).
  2. Cat Jarman, River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Road (London, 2021).
  3. Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in American, Volume 1: From the Beginnings of Prohibition (Berkeley, California, 1989), chapter 1 has relevant sections.
  4. Thomas S. Noonan and Roman K. Kovalev, ‘“Wine and Oil for all the Rus!”: The importation of Byzantine wine and olive oil to Kievan Rus’’, in Jonathan Shepard, The Expansion of Orthodox Europe: Byzantium, the Balkans and Russia (London, 2007).
  5. Ben Raffield, ‘Bound in captivity: Intersections of Viking raiding, slaving and settlement in Western Europe during the ninth century CE’, in Scandinavian Journal of History, Vol. 47 (2022), pp. 414–437.
  6. James Westfall Thompson, ‘The Commerce of France in the Ninth Century’, in The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 23, No. 9 (November, 1915), pp. 857–887.

Also read: Wine Gods Beyond Dionysius and Bacchus

On this Day

8 June 793 – On in this day in 793 the Vikings burst into the world of Western Europe when they attacked Lindisfarne Monastery on the island of Lindisfarne off the north-east coast of England. It was the beginning of an intense period of raiding of monasteries and other settlements across Britain, Ireland and northern France which would occur in the decades that followed and then morphed into full scale campaigns of military conquest and settlement. The story of the Vikings, Norsemen and Northmen are well-known, but what historians have uncovered in recent decades was that the Vikings were as much traders as they were warriors. From Britain and Ireland to France and Spain and east to the rivers of Russia and Ukraine, they sailed down rivers to trade at cities like Constantinople. This trade focused on numerous different commodities, notably silk, furs, spices, olive oil, silver and gold. Wine was central to this Viking trade. From Paris in the west, to Constantinople in the east, and Seville in the south, the Vikings were obsessed with obtaining extensive supplies of wine, which seems to have been prized over the mead which was their staple alcoholic beverage. Thus, while it’s not usually credited as such, viticulture played its own significant role in the Viking expansion.[14]

18 June 860 – On this day in 860 a fleet of some 200 Viking ships sailed into the Bosporus, the waterway separating Europe from Turkey and the Black Sea from the Aegean Sea. In the hours that followed they landed and started pillaging the suburbs of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, a city which these Norse raiders knew as Miklagaror, meaning ‘Great Stronghold’. This was the first time that the Norse attempted to besiege the city of Constantinople, with further attempts following in 907 and 941. The Vikings in question are more specifically known as the Rus’, an Arabic name for the peoples of Sweden and Finland who in the ninth century had begun sailing down the great rivers of Eastern Europe, the Volga and Dnieper, to raid and trade with the Byzantine Empire and the Arab Caliphate, establishing cities like Kiev and Novgorod in the process. Much of this trade focused on commodities like olive oil, Arabic silver and large quantities of wine. Although mead was the main alcoholic beverage of the Norse peoples, the Rus’ acquired a taste for wine in the ninth century and much of both their raiding activity and trade with the Byzantines for decades to come involved large quantities of wine.[15]

6 November 1997 – On this day in 1997 the Norwegian archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad died in Oslo in Norway at 79 years of age. Back in 1960 she and her husband Helge discovered the remains of a Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland in north-eastern Canada. This was the remains of a settlement which had been originally established by the great Norse explorer, Leif Eriksson, in the early eleventh century. Anne subsequently led the excavation of the site throughout the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, it uncovered significant evidence of grapes and wine having been consumed here a millennium ago. This was to be expected because the Vikings had christened this new land ‘Vinland’ when they settled here in the eleventh century, Vinland meaning ‘Wine Land’, a name which they applied as wild grapes of a kind which were suitable for making wine grew plentifully here. It is an indication of how significant grape wine was to the Norse peoples during the era of the Viking expansions that they named Newfoundland in this way.[16]

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References

[1] Janet L. Nelson, The Annals of St Bertin (Manchester, 1991); Simon Coupland, ‘The Vikings on the Continent in History and Myth’, in History, Vol. 88, No. 2 (April, 2003), pp. 186–203. 

[2] Cat Jarman, River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Road (London, 2021), chapter 3.

[3] For a brilliant new study, see Cat Jarman, River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Road (London, 2021); Jonathan Clements, A Brief History of the Vikings: The Last Pagans or the First Modern Europeans? (London, 2005).

[4] https://warontherocks.com/2016/01/mead-and-the-vikings/ [accessed 27/12/22]; Fred Minnick, Mead: The Libations, Legends and Lore (Philadelphia, 2018).

[5] Joshua J. Mark, ‘Norse Alcohol and the Mead of Poetry’, World History Encyclopedia, 7 January 2019.

[6] Ann Christys, Vikings in the South: Voyages to Iberia and the Mediterranean (London, 2015); Eric Joseph Goldberg, Struggle for Empire: Kingship and Conflict Under Louis the German, 817–876 (Ithaca, 2006), pp. 133–135.

[7] Thomas S. Noonan and Roman K. Kovalev, ‘“Wine and Oil for all the Rus!”: The importation of Byzantine wine and olive oil to Kievan Rus’’, in Jonathan Shepard, The Expansion of Orthodox Europe: Byzantium, the Balkans and Russia (London, 2007); https://www.lifeinnorway.net/miklagard-vikings-constantinople/ [accessed 29/12/22]. 

[8] Sverrir Jakobsson, The Varangians: In God’s Holy Fire (London, 2020). 

[9] https://www.historyhit.com/locations/lanse-aux-meadows/ [accessed 28/12/22]; Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad, The Viking Discovery of America: The Excavation of a Norse Settlement (Newfoundland, 2001); https://learn.winecoolerdirect.com/vinland/ [accessed 30/12/22]. 

[10] Trevor Rowley, The Normans: A History of Conquest (London, 2021); John Julius Norwich, The Normans in Sicily (London, 2011). 

[11] https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-49335312; ‘Sicily’ in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006). 

[12] Omeljan Pritsak, ‘The Origin of Rus’’, in The Russian Review, Vol. 36, No. 3 (July, 1977), pp. 249–273; Thomas S. Noonan and Roman K. Kovalev, ‘“Wine and Oil for all the Rus!”: The importation of Byzantine wine and olive oil to Kievan Rus’’, in Jonathan Shepard, The Expansion of Orthodox Europe: Byzantium, the Balkans and Russia (London, 2007).

[13] Gordon Campbell, Norse America: The Story of a Founding Myth (Oxford, 2021); Farley Mowat, West Viking: The Ancient Norse in Greenland and North America (New York, 1965); Dale McKenzie Brown, ‘The Fate of Greenland’s Vikings’, Archaeology, 28 February 2000.

[14] Alex Marsh, ‘In 793 AD, Vikings attacked Lindisfarne: Here’s why it was so shocking’, National Geographic 21 June 2022; Cat Jarman, River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Road (London, 2021); John Marsden, ‘The Fury of the Northmen: Saints, Shrines and Sea-Raiders in the Viking Age, AD 793–878 (London, 1995), p. 41.

[15] Alexander Vasiliev, The Russian Attack on Constantinople in 860 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1925); Sverrir Jakobsson, The Varangians: In God’s Holy Fire (London, 2020), pp. 23–34; Thomas S. Noonan and Roman K. Kovalev, ‘“Wine and Oil for all the Rus!”: The importation of Byzantine wine and olive oil to Kievan Rus’’, in Jonathan Shepard, The Expansion of Orthodox Europe: Byzantium, the Balkans and Russia (London, 2007). 

[16] https://www.historyhit.com/locations/lanse-aux-meadows/ [accessed 28/12/22]; Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad, The Viking Discovery of America: The Excavation of a Norse Settlement (Newfoundland, 2001).

Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesBy Published On: March 9, 2023Last Updated: February 28, 2024

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