THANK THE ROMANS FOR YOUR WINE
Updated: Sep 21, 2020
Every time you lift your glass of wine you should thank the Romans. Without the Romans the fine wines of the Old World - and consequently - of the New World, would not exist.
Consider the sheer amount of vineyards planted by the Romans in the Empire, stretching from Britain to North Africa and from Portugal to the Persian Gulf, an endeavor which changed forever the culture and the economy of the conquered territories.
A recent grape varieties genetic research project in the European Union scientifically proved that 78 (!) of the most important grapes grown today in Europe have all the same origin: a vine carried and planted by the Roman legionnaires throughout the Empire.
Starting around 150 BC, wine industry became one of the pillars of the ancient civilized world’s economy, and wine one of the Empire’s most important trade commodities. The Romans simply globalized wine, its culture and its economy.
The Romans were long thought to have picked up winemaking from the Greeks; ample historical and archaeobotanical evidence prove instead that the Etruscans, another Italic population flourished in central Italy, first transmitted to the Romans advanced viticulture methods. However, the domestication of the grapevine vitis vinifera sylvestris around Rome had already autonomously started between 5th and 4th century BC.
By 270 BC Romans had already taken control of all south of Italy including the Greek city-states of Magna Graecia, where grapevines were being cultivated since the 7th century BC, quickly assimilating their wine-making knowledge. Not by chance ancient Greeks used to call Italy “Oenotria”, land of wine, because of the abundance of vines already existing in the Peninsula.
Undoubtedly, many of the modern day wine-making techniques were either invented or perfected during Rome’s wine golden age. From the training and pruning of vines to the development and manufacturing of specialized vats, jars, wooden barrels and glass bottles, Romans innovated the wine trade by changing the way wine was produced, stored, transported and sold, while ultimately changing also the way it tasted.
Romans loved wine and consumed it in huge quantities. It has been estimated that in the 1st century AD Rome consumed 180 million liters of wine annually, about a bottle a day for each citizen. Rome’s wine chain of supply worked efficiently and consistently for several centuries linking together vintners, potters, merchants, shippers, tavern keepers and wine drinkers. Romans developed and expanded the wine trade throughout the known civilized world setting the standards and the foundations of today’s wine industry.
But what types of wine did the Romans drink? Wine came then in a variety of shades of color: “albus”, “fulvus”, “sanguineo” and “niger”, it was generally considered drinkable only up to 15/20 years of age and it was always mixed with water before being consumed. At family meals, the ratio was 3:1 water to wine.
The Roman “Haustores” (latin haustio: drink, savor), similar to our modern Sommeliers, were wine professionals in charge of tasting and separating the wines based on certain features like color, body, structure and taste. They worked in coordination with the “Arbiter Bibendi” who, during the Roman formal dinners, was the chosen guest of honor with the specific responsibility to arbitrate the amount of water used to cut the wine.
The most famous Roman wine was “Falernum” (Falernian), a full bodied variety with high alcohol content. “Mulsum” was a wine sweetened with honey, which was mixed in just before drinking and served as an aperitif at the beginning of the meal. “Conditum” had herbs and spices added and was often paired with red meats or strong spicy food.
Drinking undiluted “Merum” wine was considered a bad habit attributed to peasants and barbarians. “Passum”, was a raisin wine made from half dried grapes left on the vine. Wine was usually stored in 26-liter amphorae which had vineyard name and year labeled on them.
Cultwine Falernian, the “Father of all wines”, was made from vines grown on the slopes of Mount Massico in Campania, a region south of Rome. This highly regarded wine was mentioned by many Roman writers and poets from Horace to Varro, Galen and Pliny the Elder, the latter revealing that the famous 121 BC vintage, known as “Opimian”, after the Consul Opimius ruling that year, being particularly remarkable for its high quality, was even served to Julius Caesar in 60 AD, that is, some 180 years after its production.
Three Falernian “domaines” were identified on Mount Massico, the first wine appellation ever, though a vineyard midway up was considered by the Roman wine experts to represent Falernian’s best "terroir". Since it was owned for a time by a certain Faustus, this vineyard precursor of a Grand Cru could have been called today “Domaine de Faustus”.
Don’t even smile, because while in the 1st Century BC Falernian wine would cost 100 times as much as the standard daily wage of a free Roman laborer, at the same time around the tiny port city of Bordeaux, somewhere up north in Gaul, Roman dwellers were just starting to plant vines.
The Falernian grapes (Amina Gemina) were harvested late and, like some other ancient grapes, left to dry before being fermented to about 15 or 16 percent alcohol. The Passito, Vino Santo and the Amarone we drink today in Italy are made much the same way. The Amina Gemina’s DNA still exist in the modern Aglianico grape native of Campania in its red variety while also – possibly - in the Greco di Tufo’s white grape varietal. In fact, we still don’t know today whether Roman Falernian wine was red, white or probably both.
Further enhancing the link existing between wine and civilization, many ancient Roman scholars came up with a saying associating wine with virtue and civility. There is the universally known “In vino veritas", in wine there is truth, by Pliny the Elder, and there is the less known “Nulla placere diu nec vivere carmina possunt quae scribuntur acquae potoribus" which simply translates: if written by water drinkers, no poem can please or live for long, by Horace.