Last May, the remains of a beautiful Roman mosaic floor were found under a northern Italian vineyard. This caused great excitement and was a fresh reminder of ancient Romans’ huge influence on our wine culture.
Roman soldiers who marched north to conquer Gaul, as France was called then, and other parts of Europe carried great amphorae of wine along with their swords and shields. When the battles were won, and those soldiers were paid off in land, they swapped those swords for ploughshares and planted vines.
It wasn’t just that the Romans made wine, however. They were also very knowledgeable about soil types, planting, pruning and trellising, often training vines up trees.
Their knowledge didn’t end in the vineyard. They fined wines with pigeons’ eggs and cellared better vintages. Given the poet Martial’s waspish descriptions of “venom” or “the black poison of Corsica,” the Romans could even been said to have invented wine criticism.
Today, we’re retracing many of their steps. Many wineries are choosing to go back to fermenting in amphorae, which was standard practice in the Roman Empire.
In the northern Rhône winemakers are replanting defunct vineyards that were praised two millennia ago then neglected after the Roman Empire crumbled, their location eventually forgotten.
Similarly, vineyards on Mount Vesuvius that were buried when the volcano erupted are seeing new life. Guided in part by writing from Pliny the Elder, archaeologists and viticulturists have recovered the plots and are taking advantage of rich volcanic soil.
And, while William Younger, in his 1966 book Gods, Men and Wine, finds it “ludicrous” when 1st-century writers Columella and Pliny the Elder describe planting, manuring and grafting according to the phases of the moon, that sounds a lot like biodynamics.
Most of all, our modern attitude to wine is similar to that of the ancient Romans. They saw it as a universal right, rather than the prerogative of the elite. For them, wine was pleasure, relaxation and ritual.
“Remember,” wrote the Roman poet Horace, “to end life’s gloom and troubles with mellow wine.”
That advice is as good now as it was then. And perhaps the wine in question isn’t so different either.