Ancient Rome and wine  

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This page Ancient Rome and wine is part of the Ancient Rome series.  Illustration: Antichita Romanae (1748) by Piranesi
This page Ancient Rome and wine is part of the Ancient Rome series.
Illustration: Antichita Romanae (1748) by Piranesi

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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 . 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.


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.

Marcus Porcius Cato The Elder

Marcus Porcius Cato was a Roman statesman who grew up on 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 longest 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. 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. 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. Cato's manual was fervently followed and was the textbook of Roman winemaking for centuries.


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. 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. 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.

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. 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.

Other writers

Varro Reatinus was Roman writer who was called by the historian Quintilian as "the most learned man among the Romans" (Institutio Oratoria 10.1.95). He wrote extensively on a diverse range of topics from grammar, geography, law and science but only his agricultural work known as Rerum rusticarum libri (or De re rustica) survived in its entirety. While there is evidence that he borrowed some of this material from Cato's work, Varro credits the work of Mago and 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 it vintage. He notes that while some wines are best consumed wines, especially fine wines like Falernian are meant to be consumed much older.

Virgil was a Latin poet of the 1st century BC. His poems are similar in focus to the Greek poet Hesiod and focused on the morality and virtue of viticulture-particularly the austerity, integrity and hard work of Roman farmers. Under the patronage of the Emperor Augustus, most of Virgil's work praises and flatters all things Roman. The didactic poem Georgics includes four books with the second book dealing with viticultural matters. Most of the work is repetition of Varro and Cato but it does emphasis the importance that wine and viticulture had in Roman society. One notable bit of advice that Virgil imparted was the recommendation to leave some grapes on the vine till late November when they "stiff with frost". This early version of ice wine production served to produce sweet wines that didn't have the acidity of wine made from grape harvested too early.

Horace was a Latin poet and contemporary of Virgil who wrote often of wine, though no one single work of his is devoted entirely to the subject. Horace writing reflects a view of wine in Roman times that was compatible with Epicureanism in espousing pleasure in moderation. Horace's poems were some of the earliest recorded examples of consciously matching a particular wine to 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 but saving celebrated wines like Caecuban to commemorate special events like the defeat of Cleopatra. Horace responded to Callimachus' question of whether water or wine was the desired drink of poetic inspiration by enthusiastically siding with Cratinus and the wine drinkers. 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.

Palladius was a 4th century AD 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.

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