History of Wine Part Three - Ancient Rome


"...For filled with that good gift

suffering mankind forgets its grief; from it

comes sleep; with it the oblivion of the troubles

of the day. There is no other medicine for misery."

Wine. More than medicine. More than nourishment. A gift from the Gods...

Though wild grapevines have grown on the Italian peninsula since prehistory, historians are unable to determine precisely when domestic viticulture and winemaking first occurred.

The earliest recorded evidence of Greek influence dates to 800 BC. Viticulture was widely entrenched in Etruscan civilization, which was centred around the modern winemaking region of Tuscany.

For most of Rome's winemaking history, Greek wine was the most highly prized, with domestic Roman wine commanding lower prices. The 2nd century BC saw the dawn of the "golden age" of Roman winemaking and the development of grand cru vineyards (a type of early first growth in Rome). The famous vintage of 121 BC became known as the Opimian vintage, named for consul Lucius Opimius. Remarkable for its abundant harvest and the unusually high quality of wine produced, some of the vintage's best examples were being enjoyed over a century later.

For the most part wine was fermented in sealed amphoras. Small holes permitted carbon dioxide to escape during fermentation, but after the process was complete they were blocked up. The wine was not always racked or filtered and when it was not it was syphoned or run through a sieve as it was poured out to be consumed.

Cato recommended drying grapes in the sun for two to three days, while Virgil advised a different means to the same end of increasing sugar content: leaving grapes on the vine until they were exposed to frost. The products of Virgil’s method were the forerunners of modern late- harvest wines.

Cato also said that during the thirty days of fermentation the insides of wine jars should be regularly scraped with brooms made of elm twigs to stop the dregs sticking to the sides. This process was the equivalent of batonnage and other methods of ensuring that the less stay in contact with the must during fermentation. Depending on the grapes used, it should have ensured a darker and more tannic wine. The jars were then sealed until spring when the wine was racked off into clean amphoras for ageing.

Cato provided several recipes for *Greek', 'Coan' (that is, from Cos) and other wines, including this one which he described as suitable 'for the hands

to drink through the winter:

Pour into a jar ten quadrantals of must, two quadrantals of sharp vinegar, two quadrantals of boiled must, fifty quadrantals of fresh water. Stir with a stick thrice a day for five consecutive days. Then add sixty-four sextarii of old sea-water, cover the jar, and seal ten days later. This wine will last you until the summer solstice; whatever is left over will be a very sharp and excellent vinegar.

That and a lot more on this weeks episode!


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