The Wine Varieties of the Romans
Wine Regions in History
The Romans drank wine with every meal, and drank wines from all over europe. What types of wines were they drinking? First, the Roman elite were not drinking Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Cabernet only seems to date to the 1700s, where it was a hybrid of previously used vines. Chardonnay goes back a bit further - it was being used by monks in France in the 1300s. It's a cross between Gouais Blanc - a vine the Romans brought from Croatia - and a Pinot. Still, neither Chardonnay or Cabernet were around during Roman days.
Plants change and mutate over the years. They cross pollinate and adapt to fit their environment. So while some researchers have made guesses as to what wines today are similar to those of the Roman era, we cannot know for sure. We know that most Roman wine drinkers were well versed in the different types of grapes grown and the regions they came from.
The highest ranked wine was a white wine they called Falernian whose vines were trained to grow up elm trees. They were often made into late harvest wines with alcohol levels of 15% or higher. One of the writers, Columella, broke wines out into three groups. First were the primary varieties used for high end Italian wines. Next were the grapes that produced larger yields, for medium quality wine in other areas. Finally came the very high yield grapes for common table wine.
Romans valued wines that could age, and enjoyed wines that were 10-25 years old. The wines were often high in alcohol and oxidized and/or maderized. They were often stored in hot locations for the aging years. So instead of comparing these wines with, say, an old Bordeaux, it's probably more accurate to try Madeira or Marsala to get a sense for the flavors.
Romans enjoyed exploring all possible flavors of their favorite drink. They often added saltwater to it, a tradition the Greeks enjoyed. They also added in honey to sweeten it, various herbs to change the flavors, and even chalk to bring down the acidity.
There was even wine set aside for slaves. The Romans considered slaves no better than animals - but they couldn't be expected to live without wine! The slaves were given piquette - a mixture of the pomace (grape skins/etc leftover from winemaking) plus water.
From Emperor to Slave
Wine was thought of as a normal daily drink in Roman society. There was wine for every situation, for every meal, for every person, from the highest Emperor to the lowest slave. With water being unsafe to drink and milk not considered appropriate for adults, wine was the drink expected at every meal. But wine went far beyond a normal meal accompanyment.
Wine was a critical component of trade from all regions controlled by the Romans. Wine was a source of income for many along the routes from the furthest reaches of Germany and France.
When contracts were entered into, it was part of the ritual to drink a glass of wine together, to seal the pact.
Roman armies had as part of their monthly supplies a portion of wine for each soldier. This was safer for the men than trusting in the local water supply.
In the 200s, Emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus deliberately pushed to get more vines planted and set his troops to work creating vineyards in various wine regions of Europe to ensure these stipends would be met. The Roman soldiers would not be given the best wines - instead, they were given a sour wine called acetum. They would then mix this with water to help it last longer. The mixed sour wine and water combination was called posca.
When the Roman Empire collapsed, this region of the world went into the dark ages, and most vineyards fell to low levels of maintenance, often only kept alive through the efforts of local monasteries. Wine would not regain its place in trade or daily life until the Rennaisance of the 1600s.
Roman Empire and Wine
Wine Regions in History
All content on the WineIntro website is personally written by author and wine enthusiast Lisa Shea. WineIntro explores the delicious variety and beautiful history which makes up our world of wine! Lisa loves supporting local wineries and encouraging people to drink whatever they like. We all have different taste buds, and that makes our world wonderful. Always drink responsibly.