• Tastes Of History

A Brief History of Foods: Roman Wines

Updated: Aug 18

It may be reassuring to know that the wine gods continue to flourish. While many narcotics are now illegal, the Roman god of wine Bacchus [1] must be revelling in our continued love of alcohol. Of course, depending on which piece of research you read, the medical world has categorized wine as either a dangerous substance or, in small amounts, as beneficial to your health. Such contradictions intrigued Pliny (the younger) who was amazed by the efforts that went into wine production when its effects were so questionable:

'If we consider the matter carefully, no area of human life is so laborious [as wine production], as though nature had not given us the healthiest of drinks, water, which all animals drink, apart from the fact that we even make our beasts of burden drink wine. So much work, so much toil, so much money is put into wine, and this despite that it prevents the mind and leads to madness. It is the cause of many crimes, and yet it is considered so attractive that much of mankind can see no other reason for living.'

(Pliny, Natural History, XIC-137).

Pliny’s disapproval of wine consumption did not prevent him writing many books about its production, which had become essential to Roman agriculture. In climates where the vine would not grow, the land was deemed habitable only for barbarians. The borders of the Empire, to the north and south, mirror the limits of vine growing in the Roman period.


As is the method today, Romans harvested and crushed the grapes before beginning the first fermentation in a large open vat, where the grapes (referred to as "must') remained anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Then additives might be combined in the must. The Romans stored the mix in large, circular clay vessels that were buried in the ground to maintain a constant temperature. The process of maturing wine in wooden barrels was a Celtic practice rather than Roman. Sweeter than wine, some of the must was boiled down to produce a syrup, the basis of many sauces which could be used to sweeten wine. In the cooking process, Roman chefs, unlike their modern counterparts, used wine already reduced.

While the wine was maturing, it was regularly checked to gauge its progress and to remove detrimental fungi. The wine would be ready to drink after a year or more of such preparation, but before transferring it to amphorae, it was sometimes filtered. As with modern methods, the wine would continue maturing in the amphorae; the longer the better. It seems the Romans enjoyed aged wines considering them more delicious than young ones. Moreover maturity was thought to be positively healthy with such wines supposedly strengthening the individual, improving the circulation of their blood while giving it a deep red colour, aiding their digestion and ensuring a good night's sleep.


Nowadays few wines are drinkable beyond twenty years old, and their last years are not exactly their finest. Aware of this, the price of Roman wine rose significantly until the twentieth year after which it began to decline. There are, however, frequent accounts of thirty year and even older wines. Did the Romans therefore make longer lasting wines than we do? Perhaps so, especially given that short term profit may have been less of an issue for Romans than now. It is equally possible the Romans enjoyed mature flavours that today we would find overpowering. If so, it might explain Pliny’s description of a famous vintage from classical antiquity of 121 BC, named for that year’s Consul, Opimius, which was still available to drink in Pliny’s time (AD 61 - AD 113).


The Romans distinguished between sweet and dry wines, with Pliny identifying four distinct colours:


Albus: a light white wine similar to a Moselle.


Fulvius: a golden yellow wine like a heavy Sauterne or a dessert wine.


Sanguineus: a blood red wine comparable with most young red wines of today.


Niger: a very dark red aged wine, almost black in colour hence its name.


Typing wines by their colour is difficult because colours are mentioned intermittently in the literary sources. When wines are named, the sole reference is usually to the place of origin. For example, when Apicius mentions wine, he makes no comment as to type, frequently writing simply “wine” or, on one occasion, “old wine”. We tend to think of red and white wine as two different forms of drink with quite different culinary properties. In contrast, Apicius makes no obvious distinction and we are left guessing as to his intention. One Apician recipe, for example, notes wine added to a “white sauce” from which one might infer a white wine is needed. On another occasion, Apicius writes: “add wine to colour”, which one might reasonably assume to mean use a red wine, but we cannot be certain without experimentation.


The number of vine varieties was innumerable and, consequently, the same was true of the resulting wines produced. From the surviving written sources, a few of the notable Roman wines include:


Albanum, of which there were two kinds, sweet and dry. This wine, from the Alban hills, was matured for fifteen years, and the Roman authors Athenaeus, Horace, Pliny, Martial and Columella all praise its excellent quality.


Calenum which, according to the poet Ovid (IV-xii-14), was a favourite wine of the patrician class, lighter than Falernum.


Falernum [2] itself was one of the most famous wines of antiquity being frequently mentioned in contemporary literature. It was drunk after ageing for ten to twenty years; any older and it reportedly gave the drinker a headache. Falernum could be either white or rosé.


Fundanum was a strong white wine that could intoxicate quickly. According to the poet Martial, this wine existed in the time of Consul Opimius (Martial, XIII-113).


Massilitanum was a cheap but heavy smoked wine that, according to the physician Galen was healthy and delicious. Martial, however, thought it disgusting and recommended giving it to beggars to poison them (Martial, XIII-123).


Nomentanum was a mediocre wine that, again according to Martial, one should give to friends and was only drinkable at five years old (Martial, XIII-19).


Opimanum was not a wine per se but rather a famous vintage named after the Consul of 121 BC, Opimius.


Sorrentinum was a light, immature wine which, because it was drunk so young, tasted sour and earthy. It owed its fame principally to the elegant clay drinking bowls that came from the same region where the wine was traditionally drunk (Martial, XIII-110; Pliny, Natural History, XXXV-46).


Spolentinum was a sweet golden-coloured wine that Martial considered better than a young Falernum (Martial, XIII-120). It was served mixed with water that had been boiled then cooled in snow (Pliny, Natural History, XXXI-40).


Tarentinum was, according to Galen, a wine with a light taste and low alcohol content. This is surprising as the wines that come from Puglia where Tarentinum was produced are, today, among some of the world’s heaviest. Martial, of course, thought they were terrific (Martial, XIII-125).


Trifolinum was a wine comparable to Sorrentinum because of its earthy taste. Martial placed Trifolinum seventh on his list of good wines (Martial, XIII-114), while Pliny thought it only good enough for plebeians.

Despite popularising wine drinking across their empire, Roman viticulture was still a relatively new science. Wine spoiled quickly and crude measures were often taken to correct this problem. Cloudy wine, for example, might be cleared by the addition of albumen or chalk. Taste might be improved by smoking, but smoked wines are often bitter, and their colour suffers as a result. Interestingly, to correct the latter the Romans dyed the wine with such as additives as aloe, saffron or elderberry. Wines could also be sweetened with the addition of must, and many flavourings were added from plants and flowers such as myrtle, rose, violet, lilac, coriander, anis, almonds, pepper, cinnamon and so on. Apicius, for example, provides two recipes for heavily flavoured wine [3] where the principal ingredients were pepper and honey. From the ancient Greeks, the Roman winemakers adopted the custom of adding seawater and, similarly, some wines were flavoured with resin much as Greek Retsina is today.

Endnotes:

1. To the ancient Greeks he was Dionysus. Either way Bacchus/Dionysus was the god of the grape-harvest, winemaking and wine, of fertility, orchards and fruit, vegetation, insanity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, festivity and theatre.

2. Popularly known as 'Falernian' after the district of Italy from where it originated. Latin Falernum should not be confused with a syrup liqueur or a non-alcoholic syrup of the same name from the Caribbean that first appeared in the 18th-century.

3. A heavily flavoured wine was known as consitum.

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