Though not a traditional holiday these days, March 15 was big for the ancient Romans, for reasons having nothing to do with Caesar’s assassination. The day marks the Roman New Year and is the first day of spring in the Roman calendar.
As with many modern-day cultures, wine was a big part of Roman life. It was considered a daily necessity and the drink was ubiquitous for everyone from nobility to slaves. In addition, wine was a commodity to be traded and ranked. Greek wine was considered the best, while domestic wines fetched lower prices. Vineyards were classified and top vintages noted with special names.
The general winemaking techniques were also quite similar to those today. Grapes were pressed immediately after harvest, with the first run juice – then acquired by treading the fruit by foot – the most prized. Additional pressing was done in a concrete basin using a windlass to apply pressure to the fruit. Wine was fermented in earthenware jars then stored in amphorae with small holes in the top allowing carbon dioxide to escape.
And yet, the wine that they drank probably had little resemblance to what we enjoy today.
For example, chalk or marble dust was used to reduce a wine’s acidity. The wine was often boiled to concentrate the sugars, as sweet wines were the preferred style. Lead and honey also were used to enhance a wine’s sweetness.
In addition to being sugary, ancient Roman wines were quite alcoholic. Those from Falernian – an area near the present day border of Latium and Campania that was considered the best in ancient Rome – would sometimes catch fire if put too close to a lit candle.
(Combine that information with the fact that, at peak, the average consumption is estimated to have been a bottle per person per day, it’s a wonder the ancients achieved so much!)
Further, herbs and spices often were added to enhance aromas and flavors. Alternatively, a smoky flavor was achieved by storing wine-filled amphorae in a special smoke chamber. Oh, and some people diluted their wine with water.
Suffice to say, quality varied considerably, although you can bet the peasants were drinking the lesser-quality wine – typically red – with the good stuff – typically white – reserved for nobility!
Though the ancient Romans did a good job of matching grape to location, many of their prized regions aren’t as well known today, at least in the American market. For example, Falerno and Sezze were highly coveted back in the day; their modern-day counterparts, Campania and Lazio, aren’t so common in our wine stores.
Ironically, though, wines from Etruria were considered rough and coarse; this ancient area was partially in modern-day Tuscany, one of today’s top wine regions.
So what to do if you want a taste of the ancient’s wine? Seek out the eponymous wines of Josko Gravner, a winemaker in northern Italy’s Friuli region. He uses amphorae (lined with beeswax and buried in the earth, thank you very much) to make his wine. Gravner also eschews other modern techniques, such as added yeasts, sulfur dioxide and temperature control.
It is also worth finding wines from Lazio and Campania. They won’t be made in the ancient style with ancient varietals, many of which have been lost to time, but their rustic character will offer a subtle taste of ancient Rome. (Modern amphelographers have tried to determine which modern grapes correlate to ancient ones, with little success.)
Look for Lazio wines made from Terbbiano and Malvasia di Candia, both white grapes, from the DOCs of Castelli Romani or Frascati, or a DOCG wine from Cesanese del Piglio.
Campania’s most important varietal is the red aglianico grape. Look for wine from the regions of Taurasi and Aglianico del Taburno. White wines to try are Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo (finao and greco are the grapes). Also look for Falanghina, a wine that was praised by Pliny the Elder for its honeyed sweetness.
Hmmmm. Maybe ancient Rome isn’t so far away after all…