The mythical Hercules – seeking penitence for some very bad deeds – was tasked with 12 labors by King Eurystheus. Accomplishment of these tasks took our hero across the known world, passing through or leading to many great wine regions. Where did he go? And what happens when the worlds of mythology and wine collide? See here as we accompany Hercules on his journeys through Erytheia, Illyria, Eleusis, Nemea, and Thrace, tasting wines from some of these locales along the way.
Poor, mythical Hercules was tormented from birth by one of the Olympian pantheon’s many vengeful gods, Hera. Why did she dislike him so? Well, Hera happened to be married to one of the Olympian pantheon’s many philandering gods, Zeus. Hera and Zeus were not only marriage partners, they were also brother and sister, and the powerful Queen and King of all the gods. The Queen of the gods was also the goddess of marriage and family, and she did not take kindly to Zeus’ many extra-marital affairs. In this case, Zeus had disguised himself as Amphitryon, mortal husband of the mortal Alcmene, in order that he may trick her into having sex with him. This she did, resulting in the birth of Hercules and Hera’s wrath against Zeus’ and Alcmene’s child.
Photos*: Clockwise from upper left 1) Alcmene; 2) infant Hercules; 3)Megara and Hercules; 4) Zeus and Hera
After his birth, Hera sent snakes to kill Hercules. But our hero was unusually strong and courageous even then, and he strangled the snakes in his crib. Hera vowed to make his life hell, and she succeeded in causing the adult Hercules much strife. Over time, Hercules developed into a great warrior of much renown. He married Megara, whose father was the King of Thebes, Creon. Hercules and Megara had two children and lived in relative domestic-bliss… until Hera stepped into the picture once again! She caused Hercules to kill his wife and children under the grip of temporary madness. Hercules felt much grief and remorse when he regained his senses, and sought penance to salve his pathos. He asked the advice of Apollo, another of the Olympic gods, who was thought to have the powers of prophesy. After visiting Apollo’s sacred precinct at Delphi, Hercules received his penance from the oracle: the performance of 10 tasks chosen specifically for Hercules by King Eurystheus. To make matters worse, King Eurystheus was not known as a nice man. Furthermore, he was the King of Tiryns; Alcmene’s father, Electryon, had also been King of Tiryns. Thus were born the Labors of Hercules.
In our tasting, we started with Labor 12, the final one. So, you ask why there are 12 tasks if Apollo only designated 10? Mean old King Eurystheus (forthwith known as “Mean Old King”) didn’t count two of the tasks and so Hercules was forced to perform two more.
The 12th Labor: Capture Cerberus
Cerberus was a chimerical creature (three heads, snake parts, etc.) that guarded the entrance to the netherworld, the Kingdom of the god Hades. Cerberus made sure that, once inside, no one was allowed to leave again. The only exception to this rule was Persephone, the wife of Hades. Persephone had been kidnapped by Hades and taken to his kingdom from which, of course, she was not allowed to leave. But, Persephone’s mother was Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. Demeter was quite angry about the abduction, and refused to allow plants to grow unless Persephone be returned. She was allowed to return to the living in the spring and made to return to the netherworld in the fall – causing the agricultural cycle.
Photos: Clockwise from upper left 1)Demeter & Persephone; 2)Ninnion Tablet; 3)Cerberus, Hercules, & King Eurystheus; 4)Persephone & Hades
In order to learn how to safely go (and return!) from the netherworld, Hercules traveled to Eleusis. There, a cult dedicated to Demeter and Persephone practiced the Eleusinian mysteries that insured initiates rewards in the netherworld (see “Ninnion tablet”, above) . Since these rites were kept very secret, we don’t really know what Hercules learned. But, he did manage to get to the netherworld, where Hades allowed Hercules to take Cerberus if he could do so without the use of weapons. Of course, Hercules bare hands were weapon enough; he wrestled(!) Cerberus into submission and brought him to the Mean Old King.
Eleusis of the mysteries and the 12th Labor is in the region of Attica, also home to Athens. Attica is one of four wine zones in the Central Greek region. Also in this zone is the Island of Euboea and its Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) district of Evia. Evia is home to Ktima Avantis winery , in the Mountrichas family since 1830. Avantis takes its name from the “Avantes” tribe, which settled the region in the 2nd millennium BC. That tribe is famously mentioned (Abantes) in book II of Homer’s Iliad.Ktima Avantis has 20 hectares of sunny, sloping vineyards near the sea. Part of these are planted with Malagousia, a grape indigenous to Greece and grown in Macedonia, Attica, and the Peloponnese. We tasted the Ktima Avantis Malagousia 2014, Evia PGI, Greece, which is made with 100% estate Malagousia. The grape is known for its aromatic qualities, which are strong in this wine. It has a spicy and floral quality, a bit like gewürztraminer. Citrus and spice in the mouth, along with touch of nuttiness from this medium/light-body, light-acid wine. The majority of our tasters enjoyed this wine.
The 10th Labor: Cattle of Geryon
For the 10th labor, Hercules was tasked with bringing the cattle of Geryon to the Mean Old King. Geryon, like Cerberus, was a chimerical monster made up of parts of several men and at least one winged animal. He had three heads and three sets of legs, and wings. He also had a herd of red cattle on an island – Erytheia – at the end of the world, to be found where Europe and Libya meet. Hercules made the journey, creating a monument to his task: the Pillars of Gibraltar. These pillars are actually the Rock of Gibraltar (to the north) and either Jebel Musa or Mount Hacho (to the south). Legends differ in regard to the pillars; some indicate they are the result of one mountain being split in two by Hercules, others that he made each mountain. Regardless, once he arrived at Erytheia he had little trouble (other than a few slayings!) capturing the herd. The return trip was another matter, not least because Hera intervened again to stymie his labor. The overland journey home was fraught with hardships. Two of Poseidon’s sons tried to steal the cattle, so Hercules killed them. King Eryx kept one, so Hercules killed him. Hera sent flies to bite the cattle and scatter them, but Hercules couldn’t kill her. After much running around and rustling (and wrestling, actually), Hercules and the cattle arrived at the Mean Old King’s palace. Here, they were killed.
Photos: Above, Hercules, Geryon, & Cattle; Left, Hercules Stamp; Center, Hercules & Geryon; Right, al-Hakan II
Erytheia, while an island, is placed by historians in Spain’s Andalusia. Wine making here dates back to the Phoenicians in the late-2nd millennium BC, and was carried on by the Romans when they occupied the area by the 1st century AD. Later in the 1st millennium AD, the region was conquered by the Moors and became al-Andalus. The Moors, too, continued the region’s winemaking until the 10th century AD, at which time Cordoba was considered to be the most populous city in the world. The Caliphate of Cordoba’s leader, Al Hakam II, ordered vineyards to be destroyed. However, 2/3 of the vineyards were saved under the premise that they were also used to grow raisins for the Caliphate’s armies.
In general, the Andalusian land that Hercules passed through is sherry country; Jerez is found here. Montilla-Moriles is one of the other six Denominación de Origen (DO) of this region. It is found just south and east of Cordoba, likely on Hercules’ overland route back to Tyrins. Pedro Ximénez is the most commonly grown grape in Montilla-Moriles, which – like Jerez – is known for its sherry.Marenas Vinedo y Bodega is found in Montilla. Winemaker José Miguel Márquez established the winery in 1998. He has 6 hectares of vineyards that are organically farmed, and include the Pedro Ximénez grapes that are grown in the Sierra de Montilla at an altitude of 450m. We tried his Marenas Vinedo y Bodega Bajo Velo Pedro Ximénez Montilla-Moriles DO, 2011 . Márquez does not make sherry, but he uses methods that are traditional and sustainable, and his wines have no additives and only natural yeast. The latter, as well as the fact that the wine is made under the yeast flor, account for the salty, earthy, nutty, traditional “sherry” flavors of this white wine. In fact, it drinks quite like an unfiltered fino sherry. The wine is very dry, the notes of turpentine, smoke, apples, and roasted tangerine. Personally, I adore this wine. The majority of our tasters, however, were put off by the very-strong nose. Even so, there was agreement that it tasted nice with our citrus-marinated green olives. This is absolutely an aperitif wine, and it would also be great with shellfish.
The 11th Labor: Apples of the Hesperides
In this labor, Hercules was required to bring some of Zeus’s golden apples to the Mean Old King . This really shows how mean is the King, as the apples were wedding gifts from Hera to Zeus. While the apples belonged to Zeus, they were watched over by the Hesperides (nymphs of the evening), as well as a 100-headed dragon. One trouble for Hercules was that he did not know where the garden could be found. So, he wandered the globe searching for information on the apples’ whereabouts. Finally, in Illyria, he caught the shape-shifting sea god Nereus who told him where to find the garden. Off went Hercules to the northern edge of the world to find the garden. Hercules invited trouble wherever he went, and circumstances caused him to kill two more of Poseidon’s sons. Clearly, Poseidon was going to be in Hera’s camp. After a time, Hercules came upon the titan Prometheus, who was enduring eternal suffering by the hand of Zeus; each day, an eagle came and feasted on Prometheus’ liver. Hercules killed the eagle, gaining the gratitude of Prometheus. As a reward, he told Hercules that he could get the apples by enlisting the help of the titan Atlas, who was the father of the Hesperides. Atlas was currently employed in holding up the world. Forever. So, Hercules offered to – literally – take the world off Atlas’ shoulders while he (Atlas) retrieved some apples. Atlas knew a good thing when he saw it, so decided to leave Hercules with the weight of the world. But, Hercules managed to trick Atlas into taking the world back, allowing Hercules to leave with the apples.
Photos, left to right: Nereus & Hercules; Prometheus & Eagle; Hercules & Atlas; Hesperides.
Hercules travelled to Illyria on his search for the garden. This was a land ruled by many, different tribes. Around 250 BC, Agron was able to unify some of the land and thus governed over one of the most powerful Illyrian States, and one of the most powerful states in the Balkans. Agron defeated the Aetolians, who were thought to be one of Greece’s most powerful forces. Agron was so pleased with himself that he is thought to have drunk himself to death.
Illyria is in what is now Croatia, in an area that has often been divided and unified under various ruling bodies. The Kingdom of Croatia was formed at the turn of the first millennium AD. The land was later part of the Republic of Dubrovnik (Ragusa) for several centuries until conquered by Napolean in the early 19th century. This was followed by time under the Austro-Hungarian empire, followed by Yugoslavia. The current Republic of Croatia gained independence only in 1991.
One of the southern-most wine regions is that of Dalmatia, close to the city of Dubrovnik. Just north and west of Dubrovnik is the Pelješac peninsula, upon which is found the village of Dingač. This rugged, rocky, wild area is famous for its red wines – especially those made from the Plavac Mali grape, a descendent of Zinfandel. Dingač Vinarija is a co-op of 300 families, founded in 1937. They make several wines, some sourced from Dingač others from a cooler plot from the Župa Valley. Dingač Vinarija Pelješac 2010, Croatia comes from that cooler plot. It is made with 100% Plavac Mali, manually harvested and transported by donkey down the slopes. The juice was aged 12 months in oak. This is one heck of a wine. It is bright, fresh, juicy, wild, complex… and has “freškina”! Freškina is the scent of the Adriatic sea, which can be readily found on the wine. This was universally enjoyed by our tasters and was the runaway favorite of the evening. If you can find it in a store, grab it. But be quick, our taster Leslie might have already bought them all!
The 1st Labor: Nemean Lion
Ideally, this would have been our first labor of the evening, but the full, strong wines from Nemea clearly wish to be drunk in the later parts of a tasting.
Hercules first labor was to bring the skin of the pesky Nemean lion to our Mean Old King. The lion roamed the hills doing as it pleased, impervious and invulnerable to any weapon. Since Hercules’ arrows could not kill the lion, he choked it with his bare hands. After his success, Hercules made a sacrifice to his father, Zeus, and then took the dead lion back to the king. The Mean Old King was a bit shocked that Hercules completed the task, and was thence afraid of our hero. He was so afraid, in fact, that he had a large jar in which he could hide made for his palace for when Hercules came to see him (see image below, Hercules and Eurystheus). This labor also left Hercules with a lasting attribute; he is often portrayed wearing a lion’s skin. Because the Nemean lion had a skin impervious to weapons, Hercules used it as his armor. That trope is found throughout Hercules’ labors – even while taking tea with Athena. It also makes Hercules instantly recognizable, and is found in modern, popular culture.
Photos, Left to Right: 1)Hercules & Athena; 2)Hercules in Skin; 3)Hercules Graphic Novel; 4)Hercules & Eurystheus
Nemea is located in Greece’s Peloponnese. It was the setting of one of ancient Greece’s four, Panhellenic games, the others being the Olympic, Pythian, and Isthmian. A successful effort was made to renew the games and they are now once again held every four years. The competitors wear togas, however, not lion’s skins, and race in the ancient stadium.
Hercules – and the lion – also left a lasting mark on Nemean wine. This wine region is located in Greece’s Peloponnese. The main grape is Agiorgitiko, a deeply colored grape that is endemic to Nemea. Legend has it that the intense color of the grape and the wine resulted from the blood of the slain lion. Alternatively, it is sometimes called the “Blood of Hercules”. Ktima Lantides is a family winery in Nemea begun in 1993 by Panos Lantides, the winemaker. Their 22 hectares of vineyards include sloped, limestone soils at 650m planted with Agiorgitiko. The Ktima Lantides Agiorgitiko 2012, Nemea, Greece is made with 100% Agiorgitiko from the sub-zones of Asprokampos and Koutsi. The wine is aged 14 months in oak and is unfiltered. As expected, the wine has a deep, rich, red coloring. It is rife with notes of black cherry and pomegranate, as well as wild herbs. The wine coats the tongue and has a lingering finish. This was the “biggest” wine of the evening and it was quite enjoyed.
The 8th Labor: Horses of Diomedes
For this labor, Hercules was required to bring the four, man-eating horses of Diomedes to the Mean Old King. Diomedes was the King of the Bistones, a tribe of horseman who lived in Thrace along the north edge of the Aegean Sea. He is not to be confused with the other Diomedes, warrior of Homeric legend and King of the Argos (and of Aetolian blood! – see above). Once in Thrace, Hercules was able to quickly gain control of the horses. But, when Diomedes came after Hercules, the horses were put in the care of the young Abderus. Abderus couldn’t control the animals and they killed him. In retaliation, Hercules killed Diomedes and fed him to the horses. Afterwards, Hercules founded the city of Abdera in honor of his young friend. Hercules rustling the Horses of Diomedes was a well-known trope that was referenced in numerous places in the modern era. Berlin’s 18th century Brandenburg gates feature several scenes from Hercules, designed by Gottfried Schadow, and Monaco issued a stamp in the 20th century that featured Hercules and the horses.
Photos: Left) Hercules Mosaic; Right) Hercules & Mare; Bottom) Abdera
Thrace – where Diomedes ruled – was always well-known for its horses and horse riders. The Cicones were another such tribe of Thracians who lived next to the Bistones, and featured in the Odyssey. Odysseus and his men killed many Cicones and then got drunk on their wine, giving the remaining Cicones time to get help and defeat Odysseus. Abdera, the town supposedly founded by Hercules, was actually founded in the 7th century BC and became a wealthy port town. Its modern name is Avdira and it falls on the border of the Cicones and Bistones lands.
Thrace is also the location of Domaine Vourvoukeli, which produces wines under the Avdira PGI. This family operation began in 1999. Their plantings include the indigenous Limnio grape, which is organically farmed in sandy soils on the Aegean coast at an altitude of 800 meters.We tasted the Domaine Vourvoukeli Limnio 2012, Avdira, Greece. This wine is made with 100% estate Limnio, aged in oak. The wine has a beautiful, deep-ruby color. There are currant and blackberry notes, along with some green herbs and cocoa. Tannins are powdered and balanced with the acid. The body is medium, and the finish is long. This is an excellent wine. Our tasters enjoyed it, though it really should have been our penultimate offering as it was a bit “smaller” than the Nemea.
The Wine Trail
What an epic tasting, with great wines and a fun atmosphere! The favorite wine of the evening (as judged by our tasters) was the Dingač Vinarija Pelješac. This was followed in favor by the Ktima Lantides Nemea, then a tie between the Ktima Avantis Malagousia and Domaine Vourvoukeli Limnio, and finally the Marenas Vinedo y Bodega Bajo Velo Pedro Ximénez. Of course, Hercules created a great wine trail for armchair travelers. If you do not have access to these wines, there should be plenty of similar options in your local store. The specific grapes and producers might not be available in some smaller markets, but similar wines should be easier to come by. For the Greek wines, look for wine from the Peloponnese or Nemea, Thrace, and Attica (or even broader, Sterea Ellada). Suggestions for producers can be found here. Gai’a is a relatively large producer from the Pelponnese whose wines are good and well-distributed. If you can find it, Domaine Kikones (yes, as in the tribe that lived next to the Bistones!)produces excellent wines. For Central Greece, I have always been a fan of Domaine Hatzimichalis, which also has relatively broad distribution. Wines from Andalusia – especially Jerez – are fairly widespread, if not specifically those from Montilla-Moriles. Croatian wine is getting easier to find, though wine from Dalmatia may prove difficult. Happy traveling!
Alcmene: Greek, red-figured wine bowl from Sant’Agata de’ Goti, Campania, Italy. Ca. 350-340 BC. Source page: http://www.britishmuseum.org/images/ps285400_l.jpg
Infant Hercules: Roman Marble, 2nd Century CE, Albani Collection. Photo: Public Domain. Source page: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/10/Herakles_snake_Musei_Capitolini_MC247.jpg/800px-Herakles_snake_Musei_Capitolini_MC247.jpg
Megara and Hercules: Mosaic panel, ca 3rd-4th century AD, Madness of Heracles. Photo by Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Source page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMosaic_panel_depicting_the_madness_of_Heracles_(Hercules_furens)%2C_from_the_Villa_Torre_de_Palma_near_Monforte%2C_3rd-4th_century_AD%2C_National_Archaeology_Museum_of_Lisbon%2C_Portugal_(12973806145).jpg
Zeus and Hera: attribution unknown
Labors of Hercules: Roman Sarcophagus Panel, 3rd century AD Ludovisi Collection. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (Sept 2009). Source page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Twelve_Labours_Altemps_Inv8642.jpg
Persephone and Hades: Apulian Krater, ca. 340-330 BC, adapted from photo by Carole Raddato Source Page http://www.ancient.eu/image/3561/
Persephone and Demeter: Marble Votive Relief, Greek, ca. 425-400 BC. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program. Source Page: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/7113/unknown-maker-votive-relief-to-demeter-and-kore-greek-425-400-bc/
Eleusinian Mysteries: Ninnion Tablet, ca 350 BC. Photo by user Marsyas, 19 December 2005. Source page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NAMA_Myst%C3%A8res_d%27Eleusis.jpg
Cerberus, Hercules, and Eurystheus: Hydria, ca 525 BC. Campana Collection, 1861. Photo By Eagle Painter (User:Bibi Saint-Pol, Own work, 1 June 2007) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHerakles_Kerberos_Eurystheus_Louvre_E701.jpg
Hercules, Geryon, and the Cattle: attribution unknown. source page: https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/prec/www/course/mythology/0900/1525.jpg
Hercules Stamp: source page: http://www.philatelia.net/cat6/stamps/?id=613
Hercules and Geryon: Marble, late-3rd century AD. Source page: http://saintraymond.toulouse.fr/photo/art/grande/3953253-5970916.jpg?v=1316588892
Al-Hakam II: Photo By Justo José Moreno Mérida (Cordobapedia.) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons. Source page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMonAlhakenII01.jpg
Nereus and Hercules: Attic black figure, ca. 520 BC, in the collection of the J Paul Getty Museum. Source Page: http://www.theoi.com/image/P11.6Nereus.jpg
Prometheus and the Eagle: Black-figure Lakonian kylix, c. 570-560 BCE. In the collection of the Gregoriano Etrusco Museum, Vatican. Source page: http://www.ancient.eu/uploads/images/display-1149.jpg?v=1431030179
Hercules Assisting Atlas: Engraving by Claude Mellan (French, Abbeville 1598–1688 Paris), Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1953. Source page: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/393412
Hesperides: Red figure water jar, Athens ca 420-400 BC. In the collection of the British Museum. Source page: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Herakles/Hpix/1990.14.0209.jpeg
Hercules and the Lion: Attic Black Figure Amphora ca. 530 BC. Photo copyright 1996 University of Pennsylvania Museum. Page Source: http://intranet.puhinui.school.nz/Topics/AncientCivs/TheGrkWorld/www.museum.upenn.edu/Greek_World/Images/Land_time/L_64_185_450.gif
Hercules and Athena: Attic black figure skyphos, c. 500 B.C. Photo by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/Herakles/Hpix/1990.25.0161.jpeg
Image from “Hercules: The Thracian Wars” by Radical Publishing. Source Page: http://www.nerdsociety.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/hercules-1-coverB.jpg
Hercules Stamp: http://www.philatelia.ru/pict/cat6/stamp/1803s.jpg
Modern Nemean Games http://nemeangames.org/
Hercules and Horses: Photo by user Anagoria. Work by Johann Gottfried Schadow [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Source Page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A1790_Schadow_Herkules_und_die_Rosse_des_Diomedes_anagoria.JPG
Hercules and Horses Mosaic: Mosaic ca 201 – 250 AD, collection National Archaeological Museum of Spain. Photo Luis García [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons. Source Page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMosaico_Trabajos_H%C3%A9rcules_(M.A.N._Madrid)_08.jpg
Abdera Polystylon: By User:Ggia (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Source Page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A20110914_Polystylon_Abdera_Xanthi_Thrace_Greece_Panorama_1.jpg
Ulysses: Marble bust, 1st c. AD. Photo by Jastrow [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Source page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHead_Odysseus_MAR_Sperlonga.jpg
Diomedes Devoured by Horses: Watercolor by Gustave Moreau, French (1826-1898). Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program. Source page: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/106542/gustave-moreau-diomedes-devoured-by-horses-french-1866/