Mention fine wine and it’s hard not to think of France. That may seem a unfair on the rest of the modern day wine regions - old and new world, but it’s true. Yet the history of many winemaking techniques dates back thousands of years to a time when modern-day France as we know it was yet to exist.
Historical and religious writings reveal that wine existed as far back as Egyptian times, but instead it is the Ancient Romans that we have to thank for much of the wine that we enjoy today.
Knowing what we do about Roman innovation, it should come as no surprise to us that many of the modern day winemaking techniques were either invented or perfected during the Roman era. What’s more, the spread of wine culture and wine making throughout Europe owes itself to the Ancient Roman Empire.
Winemaking Techniques of the Roman Empire
Romans made wine using many of the same techniques still used today. After harvesting, the grapes were pressed to release juice (must). This was done either by foot or using complex machinery involving wooden presses attached to ropes and pulleys. The method used depended on the size and wealth of the estate making the wine and how much wine was being made.
Grapes were pressed a number of times to extract the maximum amount of must. The Romans appreciated the difference in quality between must from the first “natural” press, which occurred from a combination of the grapes’ total weight and the effect of gravity, and the second or third presses, which were either manual or mechanical. Must from each press was processed separately and resulting wine priced accordingly.
Must was then fermented into wine in large earthenware pots, a process which lasted between 2 weeks to a month. Wine was then transferred into amphorae, in which it could be aged and then served with relative ease.
Wine Styles Produced by the Romans
Wine stored to age would often continue to ferment, releasing carbon dioxide. Accordingly, amphorae used for storage had little holes drilled into the top of them to allow gas released from this secondary fermentation to escape, otherwise the build up of pressure over a long time could cause the containers to explode.
The Romans developed a many of different styles of wines, notably:
- Falernian - the most expensive and exclusive of all Roman wines, generally full bodied with a very high alcohol content. The wine was almost always aged prior to drinking, with the consensus being that it was "ready" to drink after 20 years.
- Mulsum - made like modern day wines but then sweetened through the addition of honey. Different herbs and spices such as thyme and cinnamon were also added to help improve the bouquet.
- Turricuar - wine mixed with seawater as well as some spices to add complexity of flavor. This dry wine was made to pair with fish and oysters.
- Lora - the lowest quality of wine made from the final pressing of grapes. This wine was only served to slaves and the lowest ranking soldiers. It was generally bitter and highly tannic owing to the extended contact with skins, husks and seeds.
As is common today, higher quality wines were aged over long periods to improve flavor and complexity and subsequently increase value. Remarkably, top quality vintages could be aged for over 100 years before serving.
Roman Wine Regions
The most prestigious winemaking region within the Roman empire was Pompeii, just south of Naples. The vineyards that covered the area surrounding the town provided the majority of the wine consumed in Rome. The region’s proximity to the coast also gave the added advantage of trade with Roman provinces abroad.
In 79 AD, the region suffered catastrophic damage from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, with vineyards and warehouses storing wine completely destroyed. It took almost 200 years for the wine industry to fully recover from these events, such was the importance of the region.
With the expansion of the empire came new and interesting locations to cultivate vines and make wine. In France, or Gaul as the region was then known, the Romans came across vineyards planted by the Greeks some 2000 years before them. However, their superior scientific knowledge and understanding of winemaking allowed them to further develop and increase wine production in the country. The modern day regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone Valley were recognized even back then as important areas for making high quality wines.
Apart from France, the Romans also developed and improved winemaking in many other countries throughout the empire, including Spain, Germany and England.
Modern Day Examples of Roman Wine
For those wishing to experience what Roman wine might have tasted like, there are some modern day producers that either completely or partially incorporate Roman techniques and style into what they produce today. Notably, the Mas des Tourelles winery uses original Roman recipes to make a variety of sweet and dry Roman wines. Their vineyard sits on the site of an original Roman vineyard in the South-East of France, close to the Rhone Valley.
Alternatively, "Orange" wines, named so for their color rather than having any influence from the fruit, look set to enjoy some success as this summer’s wine trend. These white wines are made in the style of reds and their intense color comes from prolonged contact of must with grape skins. This method of making white wines was very popular during Roman times.
If you do find yourself trying some Orange wine this summer, why not raise a glass and toast to the Romans? After all, it is through their studies and the expansion of their empire that we can enjoy some of the finest wines that exist today.