The Stone Wine Presses of Symi, Greece
What follows are some simple notes I made as I read the book, ‘The stone wine presses of Symi’ by Sarantis Kritikos (1997). I thought you might find them interesting and I recommend you buy the book. Having said that, I have not seen it for sale on Symi recently, though it may still be available. My copy (in Greek and English) was given to me several years ago.
When people write abut the history of Symi they, quite correctly, point out that in history the island has been known for shipbuilding, sponge diving and trade. What is not so often mentioned is that, in the Byzantine period and beyond, Symi was also producing wine. Evidence of this can be found on the island in the form of the stone wine presses in the area of Kourkouniotis.
Between 1994 and 1995, local author Sarantis Kritikos personally rebuilt eleven of these wine presses. In his book, ‘The stone wine presses of Symi’ Sarantis mentions some interesting information:
There are more than 130 stone wine presses on Symi. In Homeric times it was known that Symi produced wine. The ‘Byzantine’ wine presses, as they are called locally, are found in the cypress forests in the southern lowland (Ambeli) around Sotiri tou Magalou and stretch across to Kourkouniotis. There are approximately 47 here but only one or two are still standing.
The presses are circular with diameters ranging from 1.70m to 2.20m. The outer walls are up to 60 centimetres thick although the internal height of the presses rarely rose above 1.80m. Mortar was used to fix the stones and make the construction watertight.
The presses are built on an incline so that the grape juice can run off. A filter of dried shrubbery was probably used – such arrangements are still in use today, on roofs, to filter rainwater before it feeds into the water tank. The ‘must’ was transferred from here in a small vessel to a larger one. This collection point (according to the author’s source, Yiorgos Zouroudis) was called the ‘linos’. ‘Linos’ was also a word used in the context of wine presses in ancient times. ‘Linea’ festivals honoured Dionysius.
The author discovered earlier and simpler wine presses at a Neolithic settlement opposite Kourkounioti.
The presses were built where the natural lie of the land allowed for the ‘ready made flooring’, flat stones and stable ground. Some were probably built by artisans and others by local landowners.
25 other wine presses have been discovered on/at ‘Mirtai’ – the old road near Pano Krasikelia. (This area is between Ag. Konstantino and Ag. Yiannis Tsagrias) Krasi being the word for wine and Kelia being cellar. The author wonders how not only the presses but the houses (remains of now) were built on such a steep incline. You can get to this area by road but will have to search the hillside hard to find the remains of the settlement and presses.
The author also mentions the enigmatic stones found in all wine press areas. These are flat stones with a circle carved into them that has a straight, carved channel leading from it to the edge of the stone. The purpose of these stones? We are not sure.
Another interesting question is to ask if the presses were built in these places because the terrain was suitable for building them or because the ground was suitable for growing vines? No vines or vineyards exist in these areas now.
Having said that, Sarantis mentions in his book that, in the nearby area of Poti, a local farmer still continues to produce wine. (This was in 1997.) Four more ancient presses can be found here.
There are 20 more in the Katholiki and Ag. Dimitris areas and these are more recent constructions with recognisable doorways. There is also another monolith with circle and straight channel to be found here.
Further presses have been found in the areas of Trolli, Zerres and Kailliotis.
Two to three people worked at each press. Therefore there were 200 to 300 people employed during the harvest (not including the Kourkouniotis presses). If you average 100 to 150 kilos per press, as Sarantis suggests, then there was an output of 10,000 to 15,000 kilos per year.
There are churches close to the main wine producing areas, all dedicated to Ag. Yiannis in some form. This Saint’s name day is 29th August, around the time of the start of harvesting.
The suggestion is that, with invasions by the Turks and ‘pirates’, shipping became difficult and the wine could not leave the island. The presses are in fairly inaccessible places, as a safeguard against marauders but, with the expansion of the sponge trade, wine making declined, until the stone presses were abandoned and forgotten. It has been recorded by travellers that some presses were still in use in the 15th century. Cristofero Buondelmonti (who visited in 1420) mentions the ‘very good’ wine made on the island.
Other visitors have commented too (between 1485 and 1780) and the full list is in the book. The last of these travellers makes little mention of Symi wine so it is likely the industry had all but stopped by then. Excavations at the sites reveal pottery dating back to the 11th century and up to the 17th.