Magazyn Wine And You - Nr 3-4/2016 - czerwiec
What have the Romans ever done for us ?
Apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education etc
The People’s Front of Judea, heroes of Monty Python’s comedy The Life of Brian, had to admit grudgingly that there were a couple of such things, including wine and public order. Although wine had been around before anybody thought of settling on the Tiber, the role the Romans played in its’ history cannot be ignored. And today, we are happy to be living at times when winemaking has yet again reached the high standards set by the Romans.
Laying out firm foundations for the wine culture all across the Mediterranean is an achievement that the Romans cannot be denied. Even if the wind of history has spread some dust and rubble on top of them, their solid bulk stood the test of time and provided a basis for winemaking in the ages to come.
By the time the Roman Republic has been established, wine had been grown, made and sold for thousands of years already. The Republic’s successor, the Roman Empire was several hundred years younger than Greek poetry praising the virtues of wine, no doubt under its inspiration. And yet we tend to remember the Roman contributions rather than those of their predecessors. Perhaps it is so because of the sheer scale – the Empire stretched across a vast territory, unifying areas of different stages of development and introducing them to a common market. Wine was a staple food product, produced wherever it was possible. Where it could not be made, it was imported by sea or land. Cities, foremost Rome itself, needed vast quantities of wine every day. Therefore, wine commerce was among the most fundamental branches of Roman economy. This resulted in a flourish of professional wine-making literature in addition to the poetry and commercial correspondence that were the main type of writing concerning wine in the previous periods.
Then, what have the Greeks ever done for the Romans ?
The beginnings were surprisingly modest. Although the common grape vine is native to the whole Apennine Peninsula, it had not been used for wine production before the Greeks arrived there. Etruscans, who lived in today’s Tuscany, knew alcohol, but it was a kind of grog made from various seeds and fruit, including grapes. It was only with the arrival of Greeks on the southern coast of the peninsula and on Sicily, that the whole area flourished with vineyards – originating from Greek vine varieties that the colonists brought with them. Thus, in the 5th century BC Herodotus could already call Italy ‘the land of vines’. And in the 1st century AD Strabo and Pliny the Elder could discuss the superiority of the by then local varieties over their contemporary Greek cousins.
The Romans themselves traced their origins partly from the Greek colonists, and partly, from the local Italic tribes. They drew their viticultural knowledge first from the Greeks and the Phoenicians, and then from the inhabitants of Cartagena (itself a Phoenician colony). But in time, the pupil outshone the master, at least on a PR level, and has taken a more prominent place in our view of the past.
So, what have the Romans taken from the Carthaginians ?
In short: practical skills and know-how. In the 2nd century BC, Cartagena was a power to equal Rome. Magon, a citizen of the city, wrote down the whole agricultural knowledge of his motherland in 28 volumes. When Cartagena was destroyed, the Romans tried to delete everything to do with the place from the historical record – apart from Magon’s work. It was translated into Latin and distributed on the Senate’s cost.
Cartagena’s most avid enemy, Cato the Elder, would be the last to admit that he has in any way benefitted from Magon’s work. Yet his own agricultural treaty, De Agri Cultura, covers the same issues related to cultivation and livestock husbandry, as Magon’s work did. A direct link cannot be proved, however, since Magon’s work has not survived to our times. It is only known from later references by Varron, Columella and Pliny the Elder, and its influence is definitely enormous.
Success, celebrity and sestertii
An ambitious Roman wishing to grow vines and make wine could reach for a literature on the subject that was as rich and informative as today’s handbooks and enological studies. It was an attractive and profitable trade, or at least it seemed so to the eye of Rome’s townies. But reality would soon put these Arcadian visions right: to make and sell wine, you needed, work, work and money. In the times of the Republic, wine was produced by small-time farmers with long family traditions, who knew their trade and their vineyards. That is why wines from this period were famed for their quality until the end of the Empire.
The most prominent among them was Falernian wine. Almost every literate Roman would elaborate on its taste and longevity. Pliny the Elder noted that its’ high alcohol content made it shine brightly when set on fire. Julius Caesar, during a party celebrating his triumph in Spain in 60 BC, drank Falernian wine from the most famous vintage in all Antiquity, that is from 121 BC, or the year of Opimian, as it was called (after the name of a consul then in office).
In time, Falernian wine was no more than glorious history, just like Julius, Pliny and their times. This was mostly due to overproduction and falling standards of winemaking. This took place in the period of the Empire, when it was quantity not quality that mattered. The enormous market of the vast empire had a thirst to rival that of the whole Dionysus’ party. These were the times of the latifundia, extensive land estates, which grew agricultural products at an almost industrial scale. At the same time, a sophisticated wine trade emerged. In Ostia, Rome’s sea port, a separate forum was built that served solely as a market for wine. Also docks in Rome itself, in Transtevere, were the seat of wine merchants’ offices and gilds. Such merchants’ unions had a better prospect on the waning market, where they had to compete against the still prominent Greek wines and newcomers, such as wines from the new provinces of Gallia and Hispania.
And, eventually, what have the new provinces done for Rome ?
They gave the Romans a crucial feature in modernizing the production and transport of wine – wooden barrels. Up till that time, since the very beginning of wine production in prehistory, clay containers were used for that purpose. Greek and Roman amphoras were the basic wine containers in long-distance sea trade. Densely packed in ship cargo holds, they were practical and cheap, as they could be made almost anywhere. Yet they had a crucial flaw, when it came to overland transportation: they were heavy and frail. That is why a Gallic invention – a large wooden vessel with a watertight cover – became rapidly popular with traders in the 1st century BC.
Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historiae remarked also on the much better taste of wine kept in barrels. This was a chance discovery, brought about by attempts at economizing on the cost of transport, but it proved to be the most significant innovation in wine production since thousands of years. Another novelty was an Egyptian practice of using sulfur as preservative for wine. Romans have combined these two inventions burning sulfur inside empty barrels, which made them sterile. This resulted in reduced use to hitherto popular preservatives, such as resins that heavily influenced the taste of wine.
Thanks to all these new trends, Roman wine from the period of the Empire did not differ much from the one we can taste today. Yet it would be unlike the Romans not to try and spice it up in any way they could. Anything could be added to wine. Water, sea salt, fish sauce and even… clay roofing tiles. It was fashionable to heat wine up in small plumb cups. Only today we shrug with terror at this idea, whereas the Romans have never discovered that this practice shortened their lives and affected their fertility. Wine was drunk in this or that way every day, and in large quantities. Young wine was an important component of the menu, as it was a substitute for water (which was often contaminated). Wine was part of religious ceremonies and social gatherings. Cups were raised to the gods and to the good fortunes of their believers at every possible occasion.
The Romans did not invent wine. They inherited it from their predecessors and passed it on to us. Yet it took hundreds of years before its quality rose again to the Roman level.