So I thought I’d try something different. I’m a huge history nerd and have been listening to history podcasts (I highly recommend Hardcore History by Dan Carlin) in the vineyard, and recently I’ve been learning a bit about what ancient wine was like, especially from ancient Rome. So sit back, uncork your amphora and pour yourself a glass as we jump back several thousand years.
Wine in the ancient world would probably taste pretty terrible to us. I suppose this makes a certain kind of sense, because we’ve had possibly as long as 8,000 years to perfect the art of winemaking. The earliest evidence of wine dates to around 6,000 BC in Georgia (the country near the Caucus mountains, not the state). This is also the region where the species of grapevine used in winemaking, Vitis vinifera, comes from.
We don’t know what wine was like in 6,000 BC, so let’s jump forward to between 200 BC and 200 AD and down to the Roman Empire. We know that Romans always diluted their wine with water, so it can be speculated that ancient wine was more like a wine-concentrate, and it was considered barbaric to drink it undiluted. In fact, at many Roman parties, there would be one person whose sole job was to determine how tipsy their guests were and to add more or less water to the wine accordingly.
Not only did the Romans add water, but they specifically used sea-water. This may seem pretty gross to us, but it actually makes a kind of sense when you consider that salt was an extreme luxury at this point in history. In fact some Roman legionaries were even paid in salt. So maybe adding a bit of seawater to your wine was a way to supplement a sodium-poor diet.
Oak barrels didn’t arrive on the scene until the 4th century, so wine at this point was stored almost exclusively in clay vessels called “amphora.” This is perhaps the biggest difference, as winemaking today is often as much about the oak regimen a winemaker chooses as the fruit itself. It’s so important in fact that barrels will often have the specific forest they came from stamped on them, and each forest creates a unique taste in the wine. Amphora, on the other hand, added little to the wine in terms of flavor, and wine was probably not aged for as long as it is today. The Romans got around this by lining their amphora with lead, which would make the wine taste a bit sweeter. This of course had the unintended consequence of giving anyone who drank enough wine a nasty case of lead-poisoning, and is a theory sometimes pointed to as a contributing factor to the decline of Rome.
So, if after reading that, you’re interested in trying a little ancient wine, Patrick E. McGovern did some research and teamed up with some winemakers and breweries to try and recreate ancient beverages. He published an awesome book on the subject called “Uncorking the Past,” which can give you some suggestions. But if you really can’t wait, some historians suggest going out and buying a madeira, mixing in saltwater and grape juice concentrate, and then boiling the whole concoction with pine resin. Sounds good, right?
That’s it for this strange edition of our blog, thanks for reading. And since I have you here, is there anything you’d like to hear about? Any questions about winemaking or the industry? Comments about our wine? Send them my way! My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d be happy to answer any questions, and grateful for topic ideas!