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Roman Empire’s pervasive influence on modern wine culture


The legacy of the Roman Empire is still evident in law, government, language, engineering, and the modern Western alphabet and calendar. Not as obvious is the influence of Rome on modern European wine culture. Though grapes were grown and wine made on the Italian peninsula by the Etruscans and the Greeks who christened the region Oenotria (land of vines), the Romans took to heart the idea that “Where wine growing withers, barbarism flourishes.”

Sculpture of Dionysus or Bacchus, the god of wine-making, in Florence, Italy. | ADOBESTOCK.COM

If all roads led to Rome, they also spread from it like tentacles to the farthest reaches of the emerging empire. The Romans planned to stay wherever they set up camp or garrisons, so forests were cleared for military expediency and existing native vines cultivated, using methods learned from the Greeks and the agricultural wisdom of prior generations that rings true to this day. As time went by, planting vines locally limited or did away with the cost and time of transportation to or from Rome.

Wine became as important to the economy as olive oil and grain from Sicily and Puglia. Over 50 specifi c areas of cultivation, mostly in southern Italy, supplied Romans with wines aged and stored in earthenware amphoras. Trade routes were expanded, ways to increase production put into effect, various types of drinking vessels were developed that required materials from the eastern Mediterranean and the Caucuses. As Rome established a virtual monopoly of the ancient wine world, and its vineyards became more fruitful, wine from elsewhere was banned. The first true wine industry was up and running.

By the end of the 1st century A.D., vineyards were thriving in Gaul, Germania, Galicia, Rioja, and even the midlands of Britannia. River valleys supplied a naturally effective means of moving large quantities of wine. Carefully chosen hillsides covered in vines dotted the Loire, Bordeaux, Rhone, Rhine, Mosel and the waterways of Romania and Croatia. The basis for the most iconic European vineyards of our time had been set by the 5th century.

Consumption of wine was universal among Romans, a cradle-to-grave beverage that was given to babies as a matter of fact. Even slaves were supplied with a weekly ration of fi ve liters, a cynical “democratic” gesture, since a healthy slave could do more work. Wine was considered a component of medical practice to be used as an antiseptic and analgesic, a method prescribed by Hippocrates. Medicines made from grapes were infused with herbs, ashes, and other botanicals to help with digestive problems, potions that are mirrored by the bitter digestivi concocted in Europe since the 1800s, everything old made new again.

Though the finest wines could age for decades if properly stored, most wine was meant to be consumed as soon as possible. It was usually fruity and light like a modern Beaujolais. Once the vats were drained in autumn what was left was sour swill. The lower classes would add honey, ash, fennel, myrrh, resin (a trick learned from the Greeks) and even lead to make the remnants palatable.

To avoid spoilage longer fermentation was adopted, resulting in highly alcoholic wine. Drinking amped up juice was looked down upon as a sign of low character. Diluting wine with sea water or vinegar was more socially acceptable. Wine and water, aside from religious connotations, had a mutually benefi cial relationship. Water tamed the harsh, rustic quality of barely drinkable wine, and wine enhanced the ofttimes dubious nature of untreated water. Taken together they were the main source of hydration.

Much of what we know about wine from that era comes from the writings of Pliny and Horace. Romans enjoyed a variety of wines, generally categorized as rough and ready generic types and those of finer quality. Some were made from figs, palm leaves, and dates. Carenum was newly fermented juice that was boiled with spices. Posca was a mixture of wine, water, and either vinegar or lemon juice. Mustum was figuratively the bottom of the barrel laced with vinegar. Lora, a bitter wine, and sweet Vinum Dolce came from leftover dried skins and seeds, a process somewhat similar to current dessert wines and Amarone.

Well-to-do Romans toasted the gods with Setium, considered the best that Latium offered, and Alban, a very sweet unrefined wine from the Alban hills south of the city that was aged for years. That area, now known as the Colli Albani, is the prime spot for Frascati, the everyday white wine of Rome. Southern Latium provided a white named for its territory, Caecuban.

Campania’s wines were well regarded, especially Falernian grown near Pompeii, which Varrus lauded as without equal in his agricultural treatise “De Re Rustica.” Surrentine of Sorrento and Massic from the slopes of Mount Massicus were also highly sought. Recent DNA studies have shown a close genetic link to wine made when Gaul was part of the empire to Pinot Noir and Syrah produced in Burgundy and the Rhone. Of course, their inherent characteristics have undergone millennia of modifi cations. Natural selection and cross-breeding, varietal mutation, and the fact that different yeasts have evolved played a part, as have the human factors of technological changes in cultivation, production, and storage. We may not be able to do as the Romans did, but we can gather friends, open a few bottles, salute Rome for its pre-eminent place in the history of wine, and party like it’s 27 A.D.

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