Ancient Rome and wine

Ancient Rome and wine
Expansion of the Roman Empire

Ancient Rome played a pivotal role in the history of wine. The earliest influences of viticulture on the Italian peninsula can be traced to Ancient Greeks and Etruscans. The rise of the Roman Empire saw an increase in technology and awareness of winemaking which spread to all parts of the empire. The influence of the Romans has had a profound effect of the histories of today's major winemaking regions of France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain. In the hands of the Romans, wine became "democratic" and available to all, from the lowly slave to the simple peasant to the aristocrat. The Romans' belief that wine was a daily necessity of life promoted its widespread availability among all classes. This led to the desire to spread viticulture and wine production to every part of the Roman empire, to ensure steady supplies for Roman soldiers and colonists. Economics also came into play, as Roman merchants saw opportunities for trade with native tribes such as those from Gaul and Germania, bringing Roman influences to these regions before the arrival of the Roman military .[1] The works of Roman writers—most notably Cato, Columella, Horace, Palladius, Pliny, Varro and Virgil—give insights on the role of wine in Roman culture and contemporary understanding of winemaking and viticultural practices. Many of the techniques and principles first developed in Roman times can be found in modern winemaking.[2]

Ancient Roman statue of Dionysus (also known as Bacchus), god of wine (c. 150 AD, Prado, Madrid).


Early history

The ruins of Carthage. When the city was destroyed, one of the few items that the Romans saved was the agricultural works of Mago.

Wild grapevines have grown on the Italian peninsula since prehistory and historians have not been able to pinpoint the exact moment in time when domestic viticulture and winemaking first occurred. It is possible that the Mycenaean had some influences with early Greek settlements in southern Italy but the earliest recorded evidence of Greek influence was in 800 BC. Viticulture was widely entrenched in Etruscan civilization which was centered around the modern winemaking region of Tuscany. The Ancient Greeks saw wine as a staple of domestic life as well as a viable economic trade commodity. Throughout the Greek world, settlements were encouraged to plant vineyards for local use and trade with the Greek city states. Southern Italy, with its abundance of indigenous vines, was an ideal location for wine production and was known by the Greeks as Oenotria ("land of vines").[3]

As Rome grew from a collection of settlements to a kingdom and then republic, the culture of Roman winemaking was influenced by the skills and techniques of the regions that were conquered and became part of the Roman Empire. The Greek settlements of southern Italy were completely under Roman control by 270 BC. The Etruscans, who already had established trade routes into Gaul, were completely conquered by the 1st century BC. The Punic Wars with Carthage had a particularly marked effect on Roman viticulture. In addition to broadening the cultural horizons of the Roman citizenry, they also introduced them to the advanced viticultural techniques of the Carthaginians in particular the work of Mago. When the libraries of Carthage were ransacked and burned, one of the few Carthaginian works to survive was the 26 volumes of Mago's work which was translated into Latin and Greek in 146 BC. Mago's work was extensively quoted in the influential Roman works by Pliny, Columella, Varro and Gargilius Martialis.[3]

Golden age

For most of Rome's winemaking history, Greek wine was the most highly prized with domestic Roman wine fetching far lower prices. The 2nd century BC began the "golden age" of Roman winemaking and the development of Grand cru vineyards (a type of early First Growths in Rome). The vintage of 121BC was of legendary fame and became known as the Opimian vintage, named after the consul at the time—Lucius Opimius. The vintage was noted for its large harvest and the unusually high quality of wine that was produced—with some examples still being drunk over 100 years later. Pliny the Elder wrote extensively about the "first growths" of Rome—most notably Falernian, Alban and Caecuban. Other first growth vineyards include Rhaeticum and Hadrianum located along the Po river in what are now the modern day regions of Lombardy and Venice respectively; Praetutium (not related to the modern Italian city Teramo, historically known as Praetutium) located along the Adriatic coast near the border of Emilia-Romagna and Marche and Lunense located in modern Tuscany. Around Rome itself were the estates of Alban, Sabinum, Tiburtinum, Setinum and Signinum. Going south towards Naples were the estates of Caecuban, Falernian, Caulinum, Trebellicanum, Massicum, Gauranium, and Surrentinum. In Sicily was the first growth estate of Mamertinum.[3] At this highpoint, it was estimated that Rome was consuming over 47 million US gallons (180,000,000 L) of wine each year, enough for every man, woman and child to have about a bottle of wine each day.[1]


A fresco depicting Mercury (god of commerce) and Bacchus (god of wine) in Pompeii, in a hot-food establishment (thermopolium) that served the city prior to its destruction.

One of the most important wine centres of the Roman world was the city of Pompeii located south of Naples. The area was home to a vast expanse of vineyards, and served as an important trading city with Roman provinces abroad. It was the principal source of wine for the city of Rome. The Pompeians themselves were notorious for the decadence of their wine thirst. The worship of Bacchus, the god of wine, was prevalent with depictions of the god being found on frescoes and archaeological fragments throughout the region. Amphorae stamped with the emblems of Pompeian merchants have been found across the Roman empire including the modern day regions of Bordeaux, Narbonne, Toulouse and Spain. There is evidence to suggest that the popularity and notoriety of Pompeian wine may have given rise to early wine fraud with fraudulent stamps being used to mark amphorae of non-Pompeian wine.[4]

The 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius had a devastating effect on the Roman wine industry. Vineyards across the region were destroyed, as well as warehouses storing the recent 78 AD vintage, causing a dramatic shortage of wine. The damage to the trading port also hindered the flow of wines from outside provinces. The wine that was available rose sharply in price, making it unaffordable to all but the most affluent Romans. The wine famine caused a sense of panic among the Romans who rushed to plant vineyards in the areas near Rome, even uprooting grain fields to have more available areas to plant. While these efforts helped to quickly correct the shortage of wine, the opposite effect of a wine surplus also brought negative consequences. The glut of wine caused a depression in pricing which hurt the commercial entrance of wine producers and traders. The grain fields that were uprooted contributed to a food shortage for the growing Roman population. In 92 AD, Roman Emperor Domitian issued an edict that banned the plantings of any new vineyards in Rome and ordered the uprooting of half of the vineyards in Roman provinces. While there is evidence to suggest that Domitian's edict was largely ignored in the Roman provinces, wine historians have debated the effect of the edict on the infant wine industries of Spain and Gaul. The expectation of the edict was that the reduced vineyards would supply only enough wine for domestic consumption with sparse amount for trade. While vineyards were already established in these growing wine regions, the lacking impetus of trading consideration may have had a depressing effect on the spread of viticulture and winemaking in these areas. Domitian's edict stayed in effect for 188 years till Emperor Probus repealed the measure in 280 AD.[4]

Expansion of viticulture

One of the lasting legacies of the ancient Roman empire was the foundations that the Romans set in lands that would become world renowned wine regions. Through trade, military campaigns and settlements—the Roman influence that touched each land brought with it a taste for wine and impetus to plant vines. Trade was the first and farthest reaching arm of Roman influence. From the Carthaginians and southern Spain to the Celtic tribes in Gaul and Germanic tribes of the Rhine and Danube, Roman wine merchants were eager to trade with enemy and ally alike. During the Gallic Wars, when Julius Caesar brought his troops to Chalon-sur-Saône in 59 BC, he found two Roman wine merchants already established in business trading with the local tribes. In places like Bordeaux, Trier and Colchester where Roman garrisons were established, vineyards were planted to supply the needs locally and limit the cost of long distance trading. As Roman settlements were founded and populated by retired soldiers, many of whom had knowledge of Roman viticulture from their families and life before the military, would plant vineyards of their own in their new homelands. While there are possibilities that the Romans imported grapevines from Italy and Greece, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the Romans cultivated native vines in the provinces that may be the ancestors of the grapes grown there today.[5]

As the Roman Republic grew into an empire, the complexity of the Roman wine trade grew as well. The Roman peninsula was known for its high quality wine. Pompeii was known for its unique and high quality wine.[6] However, as the Republic grew beyond Italy, the trade and the market economy dealing with wine grew as well. The wine trade in Italy consisted of the Romans selling their wine abroad to settlements and provinces around the Mediterranean Sea. Yet, by the end of the 1st century CE/AD, the Romans’ wine exports had competition from its provinces, which began to export their wine to Rome.[7] Because the Roman Empire was very much a market economy, the provinces’ exports were encouraged. This enhanced the supply and demand of the Roman market economy.[8] If there were a high supply of wine, then the price of wine would be lower to the consumer. Because the Empire had a supply and demand economy, the Romans also had an ample supply of coinage, which also suggests that there was a complex market economy surrounding the wine trade of Roman Empire. An ample supply of coins meant that people within the Empire put a great deal of thought into the market economy of wine.[9] Wine clearly was a pivotal part of the Roman Empire, her provinces, and its economy.


Roman amphorae recovered from Catalonia.

The Roman defeat of Carthage in the Punic Wars which brought the southern and coast territories of Spain under their control though the complete conquest of the Iberian peninsula wasn't completed till the reign of Caesar Augustus. Roman colonization of the region led to the development of Tarraconensis in the northern regions of Spain, including what is now the modern winemaking regions of Catalonia, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Galicia, and Hispania Baetica which includes modern Andalusia and Sherry wine making region of Cádiz. The Carthaginians and Phoenicians were the first to introduce viticulture to Spain but the Roman influence of new techniques and the development of road networks brought new economic opportunities to the region, elevating winemaking from a private agricultural crop to a viable commercial enterprise. Spanish wine was in Bordeaux before the region was producing its own wine. French historian Roger Dion has suggested that the Balisca vine which was common in the northern Spanish provinces, particular Rioja, was brought from Rioja to plant the first Roman vineyards of Bordeaux.[5]

Spanish wines were frequently traded in Rome. The poet Martial described a highly regarded wine known as Ceretanum from Ceret (modern day Jerez de la Frontera). Wine historian Hugh Johnson believes that this wine was an early ancestor of Sherry.[5] Trade in Spanish wines reached further throughout the Roman empire than Italian wines, with amphorae from Spain being found in Aquitaine, Brittany, Loire Valley, Normandy, Britain and the German frontier. The historian Strabo noted in his work Geographica that the vineyards of Baetica were famous for their beauty. The Roman agricultural writer Columella was a native of Cádiz and was duly influenced by the region's viticulture.[10]


There is archaeological evidence to suggest that the Celts first cultivated the grape vine in Gaul. Grape pips have been found throughout France, pre-dating the Greeks and Romans with some examples found near Lake Geneva being over 12,000 years old. The extent that the Celts and Gallic tribes produced wine is not clearly known but the arrival of the Greeks near Massalia in 600 BC certainly introduced new types styles of winemaking and viticulture. The limit of Greek viticulture was to plant in regions with Mediterranean climates that would also support olive and fig tree plantings. The Romans looked for regions near a river and an important town, with hillside terrain. Roman knowledge of the sciences included the tendency for cold air to travel like water down a hillside, cooling the grapes in the day, and to gather in frost pockets at the bottom. Those areas were to be avoided while a sunny hillside, even in a northernly location, could provide a climate sufficient enough to ripen grapes. When the Romans took over Massalia in 125BC, they pushed farther inland and westward. They founded the city of Narbonne in 118BC, in what is today the Languedoc wine region, along the Via Domitia—the first Roman road in Gaul. The Romans established lucrative trading relations with local tribes of Gaul. Despite having the potential to produce wine of their own, the Gallic tribes paid high prices for Roman wine with a single amphora featuring the entire value of slave.[5]

Roman ruins in Vienne. The first French wine to receive international acclaim was produced in this area near the modern Côte-Rôtie wine region.

From the Mediterranean coast, the Romans pushed further up the Rhône Valley, to areas where olives and figs didn't grow but where oak trees were still found. The Romans knew from their territories in what is now northeastern Italy that regions where Quercus ilex trees were found had climates that were sufficiently hot enough to allow grapes to ripen fully. In the 1st century AD, Pliny notes that the settlement of Vienne (near what is now the Côte-Rôtie AOC) produced a resinated wine that fetched high prices in Rome. Wine historian Hanneke Wilson notes that this Rhône wine was the first truly French wine to receive international acclaim.[11] The first mention of Roman interest in the Bordeaux region was in Strabo's report to Augustus that there were no vines down the river Tarn towards Garonne into the region known as Burdigala. The wine for this seaport was being supplied by the "High country" region of Gaillac in the Midi-Pyrénées region. The Midi had bountiful resources of indigenous vines that the Romans cultivated, many of which are still being used to produce wine today, including—Duras, Fer, Ondenc and Len de l'El. The location of Bordeaux on the Gironde estuary made it an ideal seaport to transport wine along the Atlantic Coast and to the British Isles. It wasn't long before Bordeaux became self sufficient with its own vineyards and even exporting its own wine to Roman soldiers stationed in Britain. In the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder mentions plantings in Bordeaux, including the Balisca vine (previously known in Spain) under the synonym of Biturica after the local Bituriges tribe. Ampelographers note that corruption of the name Biturica is Vidure which is a French synonym of Cabernet Sauvignon and may point to the ancestry of this vine with the Cabernet family that includes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot.[5]

Further up the Rhône, along the Saône tributary, the Romans would encounter the areas that would become the modern day wine regions of Beaujolais, Mâconnais, Côte Chalonnaise and Côte d'Or. Rome's first ally among the tribes of Gaul was the Aedui whom they supported by founding the city of Augustodunum in what is now the Burgundy wine region. While it is possible that vineyards were planted in the 1st century AD, shortly after the founding of Augustodunum, the first definitive evidence of wine production comes from an account of the visit by Emperor Constantine to the city in 312 AD. The founding of France's other great wine regions are not as clear. The Roman's propensity for planting on hillsides has left archaeological evidences of Gallo-Roman vineyards in the chalk hillsides of Sancerre. In the 4th century, the Emperor Julian had a vineyard near Paris on the hill of Montmartre. A 5th century villa in what is now Épernay shows the Roman influence in the Champagne region.[12]


The Roman bridge of Trier crosses the Mosel river. The Romans found that planting vines on the steep banks along the river provided enough warmth to ripen wine grapes.

While wild Vitis vinifera vines have existed along the Rhine since prehistory, the earliest evidence of viticulture dates back to the Roman conquest and settlement of the western territories of Germania. Agricultural tools, such as pruning knives, have been found near Roman garrison posts in Trier and Cologne but the first definitive record of wine production dates the 370 AD work by Ausonius titled Mosella where he described vibrant vineyards along the Mosel. A native of Bordeaux, Ausonius compared the vineyards favorably to those of his homeland and seems to indicate that viticulture had long been present in this area. The reasons for planting Rhineland were to cater to the growing demand of Roman soldiers along the Limes Germanicus (German frontier) and the high costs associated with importing wine from Rome, Spain or Bordeaux. At one point the Romans considered building a canal that linked the Saône and Mosel in order to facilitate water way trading. The alternative was to drink what Tacitus described as an inferior beer-like beverage.[12]

The steep hillsides along the Mosel and Rhine rivers provided an opportunity to extend the cultivation of grapes to a northerly location. A south/southwest facing slope maximizes the amount of sunshine that the vines receive with the degree of angle allowing the vines to receive the sun's rays perpendicularly rather than at a low or diffuse angle as vineyards on flatter terrain receive. The hillside offered the added benefit of shielding vines from the cold northern winds and the reflection from the rivers offered additional warmth to add in ripening the grapes. With the right type of grape, perhaps even an early ancestor of the German wine grape Riesling, the Romans found that wine could be produced in Germania. From the Rhine, German wine would make its way downriver to the North Sea and to merchants in Britain where it began to develop a good reputation. Despite military hostilities, the neighboring Germanic tribes like the Alamanni and Franks were eager customers of German wine until a 5th century edict forbade the sale of wine outside of Roman settlements. Wine historian Hugh Johnson believes this might have been an added incentive for the barbarian invasions and sacking of Roman settlements like Trier—"an invitation to break down the door".[12]


The silver serving tray depicting Bacchus found in Mildenhall.

The Roman influence on Britain is not so much a viticultural one, as it is a cultural one in the British relationship with wine. Throughout modern history, the British have played a key role in shaping the world of the wine and defining global wine markets.[13] Though evidence of Vitis vinifera vines on the British Isle dates back to the Hoxnian Stage when the climate was much warmer than it is today, the British interest in wine production really took foot following the Roman conquest of Britain in the 1st century AD. Amphorae from Italy indicate that wine was regularly transported by sea, around the Iberian peninsula to Britain at great expense. The development of wine producing regions in Bordeaux and Germany made supplying the needs of Roman colonists much easier at less cost. The presence of amphora production houses founds in what is now Brockley and Middlesex indicates that the British probably had vineyards of their own as well.[14]

There is clear evidence that the Roman cult of Bacchus, the wine god, was practiced in Britain with more than 400 artifacts being found throughout Britain with his depiction—including the Mildenhall Treasure which included among the collection a silver dish with engravings of Bacchus having a drinking contest with Hercules. In Colchester, excavations have uncovered containers identifying over 60 different types of wines from Italy, Spain, the Rhine and Bordeaux.[12]

Roman writings on wine

The work of the classical Roman writers — most notably Cato, Columella, Horace, Palladius, Pliny, Varro and Virgil — shed light on the role of wine in Roman culture as well as contemporary winemaking and viticultural practices. Some of these techniques have influences that can be seen in modern winemaking today. These include consideration of climate and landscape in choose which grape variety to plant, the benefits of different trellising and vine training systems, the effects of pruning and yields on the quality of wine, as well as winemaking techniques like sur lie aging after fermentation and the importance of cleanliness throughout the winemaking process to avoid contamination, impurities and spoilage.[2]

Marcus Porcius Cato The Elder

Marcus Porcius Cato was a Roman statesman who grew up in an agricultural family on a farm in Reate northeast of Rome. He wrote extensively on a variety of subject matters with his work De Agri Cultura ("Concerning the cultivation of the land") being the oldest surviving work of Latin prose. In that work, Cato commented in detail on viticulture and winemaking, including details on the management of a vineyard, including the calculations about how much work a slave could do in the vineyard before dropping dead.[3] He believed that grapes produce the best wine when they received the maximum amount of sunshine. To this extent, he recommended that vines be trained in trees as high as they could possibly go and be severely pruned of all leaves once the grapes began to ripen.[1] He advised winemakers to wait until the grapes are fully ripe before harvesting because the quality of the wine would be much better and help maintain the reputation of the wine estate. Cato was an early advocate for the importance of hygiene in winemaking, recommending that wine jars should be wiped clean twice a day with a new broom every time. He also recommended thoroughly sealing the jars after fermentation to prevent the wine from spoiling and turning into vinegar. However, this recommendation also included not filling the amphorae to the top and leaving some head space which leads to some levels of oxidation.[15] Cato's manual was fervently followed and was the textbook of Roman winemaking for centuries.[3]


Statue of Columella in his native land of Cádiz.

Columella was 1st century AD writer whose De Re Rustica is considered one of the most important works on Roman agriculture. The 12 volumes are written in prose with the exception of book 10 about gardens which is written in hexameter verse. Columella's work delves into the technical aspects of Roman viticulture in the third and fourth books, including advice on which soil types yield the best wine. In the twelfth book, he deals with the various aspects of winemaking.[16] One of the winemaking techniques that Columella described was the boiling of grape must in a lead vessel. In addition to the concentration of sugars through the reduction of the grape must, the lead itself imparted a sweet taste and desirable texture to the wine.[17] He laid out precise details on how a well run vineyard should operate from the optimum breakfast of slaves to the yield of grapes from each jugera of land and the pruning practices to ensure those yields. Many modern elements of vine training and trellising can be seen in Columella's description of best practices. In his ideal vineyard, vines were planted two paces apart and fastened with willow withies to chestnut stakes that were about the height of a man. Columella also described some of the wines of Roman provinces, noting the potential of wines from Spain and the Bordeaux region. He also mentions the quality of wines made from the ancient grape varieties Balisca and Biturica which ampelographers believe are the ancestors of the Cabernet family.[18]

Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder.

Pliny the Elder was 1st century AD naturalist and author of the Roman encyclopedia Naturalis Historia (Natural History). The 37 books of Natural History was dedicated to the Emperor Titus and published posthumously after Pliny's death near Pompeii following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. While covering a vast array of topics, Natural History does give serious consideration to the topic of wine and viticulture. Book 14 deals exclusively with the subject of wine itself, including a ranking of a "first growths" of Rome. Book 17 includes a discussion of various viticultural techniques and an early formalization of the concept of terroir in that unique places produces unique wine. In his rankings of the best Roman wines, Pliny concludes that the place has more influence on the resulting quality of wine than the particular grape vine. The early sections of Book 23 deals with some of the medicinal properties of wine.[19] Pliny was a strong advocate for training vines up trees in a pergola and noted that the finest wines in Campania all used this practice. Due to the dangers in working and pruning the vines high up in trees, Pliny recommended not using valuable slave labor but rather hired vineyard workers with a stipulation in their contract to pay for a grave and funeral expenses. He described some of the contemporary varieties noting that Aminean and Nomentan were the best. Ampelographers believe that two white wine varieties that he described, Arcelaca and Argitis, may be an early ancestor to the modern grape Riesling.[18]

Pliny is also the source for one of the most famous Latin quotations about wine: in vino veritas, or "there's truth in wine," referring to the often confessional loquacity produced by getting drunk.[20]

Other writers

Marcus Terentius Varro, whom the rhetorician Quintilian called "the most learned man among the Romans",[21] wrote extensively on topics including grammar, geography, religion, law and science, but only his agricultural treatise De re rustica (or Rerum rusticarum libri) has survived in its entirety. While there is evidence that he borrowed some of this material from Cato's work, Varro credits the lost multi-volume work of Mago the Carthaginian, as well as the Greek writers Aristotle, Theophrastus and Xenophon. Varro's treatise is written as a dialogue and divided into three parts, with the first part containing most of the discussion on wine and viticulture. In this work, Varro defines old wine as wine that is at least a year removed from its vintage. He notes that while some wines are best consumed young, especially fine wines like Falernian are meant to be consumed much older.[22]


The poetry of Virgil recalls that of the Greek poet Hesiod in focusing on the morality and virtue of viticulture, particularly the austerity, integrity and hard work of Roman farmers. The second book of the didactic poem Georgics deals with viticultural matters.[23] One notable bit of advice that Virgil imparted was the recommendation to leave some grapes on the vine till late November when they become "stiff with frost". This early version of ice wine would have produced sweet wines without the acidity of wine made from grapes harvested too early.[18]

Horace, the contemporary of Virgil, wrote often of wine, though no one single work of his is devoted entirely to the subject. Horace espoused an Epicurean view of enjoying pleasure, including wine, in moderation. Horace's poems are some of the earliest recorded examples of deliberately choosing a wine for a specific occasion. Examples recorded in his Odes included serving a wine from the birth-year vintage at a celebration of an honored guest, and serving simple wines for everyday occasion while saving celebrated wines like Caecuban to commemorate special events. Horace answered the question posed by the Alexandrian poet Callimachus as to whether water or wine was the desired drink of poetic inspiration by enthusiastically siding with Cratinus and the wine drinkers.[24] Horace's affinity for wine was such that while contemplating his death, he expressed more dread at the thought of departing from his beloved wine cellar than from his wife.[18]

Palladius was a 4th century writer who composed a 15 volume treatise on agriculture known as Opus agriculturae or De Re Rustica. The first book was an introduction into basic farming principles with the proceeding 12 books dedicated to each month of the calendar year and the specific agricultural tasks that needed to be done in that month. While Palladius deals with a variety of agricultural crops, he spends more time discussing the practices of the vineyard than on any other subjects. The last two books deal with mostly veterinary medicine for farm animals but does include a detail account of late Roman grafting practices. Palladius work borrows heavily from Cato, Varro, Pliny and Columella but was one of the few Roman agricultural accounts to still be widely used through the Middle Ages and into the early Renaissance period. His writings on viticulture were widely quoted by Vincent of Beauvais, Albertus Magnus and Pietro Crescenzi.[25]

Roman winemaking

After fermentation, Roman wine was stored in amphora vessel to be used for serving or further aging.

Ancient Roman winemaking involved the treading of the grapes quickly after harvesting. This treading was often done by feet in a manner similar to the French pigeage. The juice that was obtained by treading was the most prized and kept separate from the juice that would come from pressing the grape.[2] This free run juice was also believed to have the most beneficial medicinal properties.[1] Cato described the process of pressing as taking place in a special room which included an elevated concrete platform that contained a shallow basin with raised curbs. The basin was shaped with gentle slopes that lead to a run off point. Across the basin was long horizontal beams of wood with the front of the beams being attached by rope to a windlass apparatus. The crushed grapes were placed between the beams with pressure being applied by winding down the windlass. The pressed juice would run down between the beams into the basin where it was collected. The construction and use of Roman wine presses was labour intensive and expensive. Its use was mostly confined to large estates with smaller wineries relying on the use of treading alone in obtaining grape juice.[26]

If pressing was used, an estate would press the grape skins anywhere from one to three times. The juice that would come from later pressings would be coarser and more tannic with the juice from the third pressing normally being used to make the low quality wine piquette. After pressing, the grape must was stored in large earthenware jars known as dolium. With a capacity up to several thousand liters, these jars were often partially buried into the floors of a barn or warehouse. In these jars fermentation would take place and would last anywhere from two weeks to 30 days before the wine would be removed and stored in amphora storage vessels. Small holes were drilled into the top to allow the pressure from carbon dioxide gas to escape.[1] In the case of white wine production, the wine could be exposed to ageing on its lees which would enhance the flavor of the wine. Chalk and marble dust was sometimes added to lessen the "bite" or acidity in the wine.[2] The wines were often exposed to high temperatures and "baked" in a manner similar to the process used to make the modern wine Madeira. To enhance sweetness in the wine, a portion of the must would be boiled to concentrate the sugars in process known as defrutum and then added with the rest of the fermenting batch. The writings of Columella suggest that the Romans believed that boiling the must also had preservation benefits. Lead was also sometimes used as a sweetening agent.[3] Other methods to enhance sweetness included the addition of honey to the wine-with as much as 3 kilograms (6.6 lb) being recommended to sufficiently sweeten 12 litres (3.2 US gal) of wine to Roman tastes. Another technique developed was to withhold a portion of the sweeter unfermented must and then blend in with the finished wine—a method known today as süssreserve.[18]

Wine styles

The grape material from pomace (pictured) was used to make lora, a low quality wine that was commonly served to Roman slaves.

Like most wines in the ancient worlds, sweet white wine was the most highly prized wine style. The wines were often very alcoholic, with Pliny noting that you could bring a candle flame to a cup of Falernian and it would catch fire. Because of this strength, the wines were often diluted with warm water and sometimes even salty seawater.[3] The ability to age was a desirable trait in Roman wines, with mature wines from older vintages (regardless of the vintage's overall quality) fetching higher prices than wine from the current vintage. Roman law labeled the distinction between "old" wine and "new" as wine that has been aged for at least a year. Falernian was particularly prized for its aging ability being said to need at 10 years to mature but being at its best between 15–20 years. The white wine from Surrentine was said to need at least 25 years. As with Greek wine, Roman wine was often flavored with herbs and spices (similar to modern Vermouth and mulled wine) and were sometimes stored in resin coated containers which gave it a flavor similar to modern Retsina.[2] The Romans were very keen on the aroma of wine and would experiment with different techniques in order to enhance a wine's bouquet. One technique that gained some usage in southern Gaul was planting herbs like lavender and thyme in the vineyards, believing that the flavors would transfer through the ground into the fruit of the grapevines. Modern Rhône wine often has the aroma descriptors of lavender and thyme as a reflection of the grape varieties used and terroir.[1] Another technique widely practiced was to store amphorae in a smoke chamber called fumarium to add smokiness to their flavour.

The term "wine" covered a broad spectrum of wine based drinks. The quality of the beverage depended on the amount of pure grape juice used to make the beverage and how diluted the wine was when it was served. The best quality wine was reserved for the upper classes of Rome. Below that was posca a mixture of water and sour wine that had not yet turned into vinegar. This wine was less acidic than vinegar and still retained some of the aromas and texture of wine. It was the preferred wine to make up the rations of Roman's soldiers due to its low alcohol levels. The use of posca for soldier's rations was codified in the Corpus Juris Civilis and amounted to around a liter per day for each soldier. Still lower in quality was lora (modern day piquette) which was made by soaking the pomace of grape skins that have been pressed twice before in water for a day and pressing them for a third time. This was the style of wine that Cato and Varro recommended for their slaves. Both posca and lora would have been the most commonly available wine for the general Roman populace. These wines also probably would have been mostly red since white wine grapes would have been saved for the use of the upper class.[27]

Grape varieties

The writings of Virgil, Pliny and Columella give the most details about the types of grape varieties used in the production of wine in the Roman empire. The grapes of the Roman empire were varied, with many varieties being lost to antiquity. While Virgil's writings often do not distinguish between a wine's name or the grape variety, he did make frequent mention of the Aminean grape variety which Pliny & Columella rank as the best wine grape in the empire. Pliny describes Aminean has having five sub-varieties that produce similar but distinct wines and claims the grape is native to the Italian peninsula. While Pliny claims that only Democritus knew of every grape variety that exist, he does endeavor to speak with authority on the grapes that he believe are the only ones worthy of consideration. After Aminean, he describes the Nomentan as the second best wine producing grape followed by Apian and its two sub-varieties which were the preferred grape of Etruria. After these grapes, the only other grapes worthy of Pliny's consideration were Greek varieties including the Graecula grape used to make Chian wine. Pliny says that the Eugenia grape has some promise but only if its planted in the Colli Albani region. Columella mentions many of the same grapes that Pliny does but notes that same grape produce different wines in different regions and maybe known under different names making it hard to track. He encourages vine growers to experiment with different plantings to find the best one that grows in their area.[28] Ampelographers debate over the descriptions of grapes and what their modern counterpart or descendant maybe. The Allobrogica grape that was used to produce the Rhône wine of Vienne may have been an early ancestor of the Pinot family. Alternative theories state that it was more closely related to Petite Sirah or Mondeuse Noire—two grapes that produce vastly different wines. The link between these two is the Mondeuse synonym of Grosse Syrah. The Rhaetic grape that Virgil praises is believed to be related to the modern Refosco grape of northeast Italy.[12]

Wine in Roman culture

The early Roman culture viewed was sharply influenced by the ancient Greeks. Wine had religious, medicinal and societal implications that set it apart from other Roman cuisine. As Rome entered its golden age of winemaking and era of expansion, the "democratic" view of wine started to emerge in Roman culture with wine being viewed as a necessity for everyday life and not just a luxury meant to be enjoyed by a few. In Cato's time, he believed that even slaves should have a weekly ration of over a gallon (5 liters) of wine a week. However his reasons was more for the dietary health of the slaves and maintenance of their strength rather their personal enjoyment. Should a slave become sick and unavailable to work, Cato advises cutting his rations in half to conserve wine for the workforce.[1] It was this view that led to widespread planting in order to serve the need of all classes. Part of this was due to the changing Roman diet. In the 2nd century BC, Romans started moving away from a diet that consisted of the moist porridge and gruel to more bread-based meals. Wine became a necessity to help in eating the drier bread.[27]

Use by women

For many centuries, women in the Roman empire were not permitted to drink wine.

Despite the more democratic view of wine, the use of wine by women was frowned upon and even prohibited. In Greek and Roman comedies, women were often portrayed as drunkards and more persuaded to commit various vices while under the influence. The poet Juvenal noted in his Satires that "When she is drunk, what matters to the Goddess of Love? She cannot tell her groin from her head." (6.300–301) Women were also the most noted participants in the cult of Bacchus, which the Roman Senate outlawed in 186 BC for impropriety. Husbands were legally allowed to kill or divorce their wives if they caught them committing such an offense. One Roman myth involved a man named Egnatius Mecenius beating his wife to death with a stick for drinking wine and being praised for his virtue by Romulus himself. Another myth told the tale of a woman who was sentenced to starve to death by her family for opening the purse that contained the keys to the wine cellars. The last recorded divorce for this offense was granted in 194 BC, and during the 1st century BC attitudes turned more tolerant as wine came to be seen more as a dietary staple.[27]

Medical uses

The Romans believed that wine had both healing and destructive powers. It could heal the mind from depression, memory loss and grief as well as the body from various ailments-including bloating, constipation, diarrhea, gout, halitosis, snakebites, tapeworms, urinary problems and vertigo. Cato wrote extensively on the medical uses of wine, including espousing a recipe for creating wine that could aid as laxative by using grapes whose vines were treated to a mixture of ashes, manure and hellebore. He wrote that the flowers of certain plants like juniper and myrtle could be soaked in wine to help with snakebites and gout. Cato believed that a mixture of old wine and juniper, boiled in a lead pot could aid in urinary issues and that mixing wines with very acidic pomegranates would cure tapeworms.[29]

The 2nd century AD Greco-Roman physician Galen provides several details about how wine was used medicinally in later Roman times. In Pergamon, Galen was responsible for the diet and care of the gladiator. He made liberal use of wine in his practice and boasted that not a single gladiator died in his care. For wounds, he would bath them in wine as an antiseptic. He would also use wine as analgesic for surgery. When Galen became the physician of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, he worked on developed pharmaceutical drugs and concoctions made from wine known as theriacs. The abilities of the these theriacs developed superstitious beliefs that lasted till the 18th century and revolved around their "miraculous" ability to protect against poisons and cure everything from the plague to mouth sores. In his work De Antidotis, Galen notes the trend of Roman tastes from thick, sweet wines to lighter, dry wines that were easier to digest.[18]

The Romans were also aware of the negative health affects from wine, particularly the tendency towards "madness" if consumed beyond moderation. Lucretius warned that wine could provoke a fury in one's soul and lead to quarrels. Seneca the Elder believed that drinking wine magnified the physical and psychological defects in the drinker. Drinking wine in excess was frowned upon and those that did were considered dangerous to society. The Roman politician Cicero would frequently accuse his rivals of being drunkards and a danger to Rome—most notably Mark Antony who apparently once drank to such excess that he vomited in the Senate.[29]

Religious uses

The use of wine in the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist share similarities with the pagan rites dedicated to Bacchus.

In early Rome, the cult of Bacchus had a presence among the people of central and southern Italy by the 3rd century BC. Like its Greek counterpart, it soon came under suspicion by the ruling class. The cult was divided into local cells with their own hierarchical structures and oaths of loyalty. Most of the members were women and their Bacchanalia festivals were believed to include animal sacrifices and sexual orgies. The Roman Senate viewed these gatherings as a threat against Roman authority, banning the cult and the Bacchanalia in 186 BC.[29]

As Rome assimilated more cultures, they came across two religious groups that viewed wine in generally positive terms—Judaism and Christianity. Wine, grapes and the grape make frequent literal and allegorical appearances in both the Hebrew and Christian Bible. In the Torah, grape vines were one of the first crops planted after the Great Flood and during the scouting of Canaan, following the Exodus from Egypt, one of the positive reports about the land was that grapevines were abundant. The Jews under Roman rule accepted wine as part of their daily life but viewed negatively the excesses that they associated with Roman impurities. Many of the Jewish views on wine were adopted by the new Christian sect that emerged in the 1st century AD. One of the first miracles that the sect's founder, Jesus, was reported to have done was to turn water into wine, and the central Christian sacrament of the Eucharist prominently involved wine. The Romans drew some parallels between the similarities of Bacchus and the Christ of Christianity. Both figures had stories draped in the symbolism of life after death—Bacchus in the yearly harvest and dormancy of the grape and Christ in the death and resurrection narratives. The act of the Eucharist in consuming (either metaphysically or metaphorically) Christ by drinking the wine has echoes of rites carried out in festivals dedicated to Bacchus. The influence and importance of wine in the Christian church was unmistakable, and the Church itself would soon take the mantle from Ancient Rome as the dominant influence in the world of wine for the centuries that followed, through the Renaissance.[29]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g R. Phillips A Short History of Wine pg 35 –45 Harper Collins 2000 ISBN 0066212820
  2. ^ a b c d e J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 589–590 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0198609906
  3. ^ a b c d e f g H. Johnson Vintage: The Story of Wine pg 59–63 Simon and Schuster 1989 ISBN 0671687026
  4. ^ a b H. Johnson Vintage: The Story of Wine pg 64–67 Simon and Schuster 1989 ISBN 0671687026
  5. ^ a b c d e H. Johnson Vintage: The Story of Wine pg 82–89 Simon and Schuster 1989 ISBN 0671687026
  6. ^ Purcell N., 1985, "Wine and Wealth in Ancient Italy", The Journal of Roman Studies 75, p. 8
  7. ^ Casson, Lionel. The Ancient Mariners. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991. p. 200
  8. ^ Temin, Peter, 2001, “A Market Economy in the Early Roman Empire”, The Journal of Roman Studies 91, p. 171
  9. ^ Temin, Peter, 2001, “A Market Economy in the Early Roman Empire”, The Journal of Roman Studies 91, p. 174
  10. ^ J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 652 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0198609906
  11. ^ J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 281 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0198609906
  12. ^ a b c d e H. Johnson Vintage: The Story of Wine pg 90–97 Simon and Schuster 1989 ISBN 0671687026
  13. ^ J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 104 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0198609906
  14. ^ J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 252 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0198609906
  15. ^ J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 144 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0198609906
  16. ^ J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 190 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0198609906
  17. ^ H. Johnson Vintage: The Story of Wine pg 290 Simon and Schuster 1989 ISBN 0671687026
  18. ^ a b c d e f H. Johnson Vintage: The Story of Wine pg 68–74 Simon and Schuster 1989 ISBN 0671687026
  19. ^ J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 533 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0198609906
  20. ^ Pliny, Natural History 14.141.
  21. ^ Quintililan, Institutio Oratoria 10.1.95.
  22. ^ J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 728 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0198609906
  23. ^ J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 754 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0198609906
  24. ^ J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 347 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0198609906
  25. ^ J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 505 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0198609906
  26. ^ J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 545 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0198609906
  27. ^ a b c R. Phillips A Short History of Wine pg 46–56 Harper Collins 2000 ISBN 0066212820
  28. ^ J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 23 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0198609906
  29. ^ a b c d R. Phillips A Short History of Wine pg 57–63 Harper Collins 2000 ISBN 0066212820

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