Did Romans pine for wine?

Scientists have just discovered that amphorae might have been key to the success of Roman wine.

All Romans drank wine, from slaves to plebs to senators and emperors, as water was not as potable as it is these days. Even in Rome today, some hotels reassure guests that the water from the tap won’t make them ill.

But why Roman wine was so successful and widely imbibed has been something of a puzzle – as well as how Ancient Romans managed to keep it from spoiling.

Roman Amphorae, former Convent of San Francesco al
Corso, Verona

A study in the Public Library of Science (PLOS ONE) has found that pine was not only in the tar used to line amphorae – but may also have helped to flavour the grapes used in wine making. As pine was not native to the region, it is thought that it was imported through trade links from Calabrian or Sicily which may date back 1,500 years.

Cretan Amphorae in the Louvre

Chemist Louise Chassouant analysed residues found in amphorae around 55 miles southeast of Rome, including residues from plant tissue and pollen. The amphorae were found at San Felice Circeo, a town situated just below Mount Circeo, where one of the oldest Neanderthal caves, Grotta Guattari was previously discovered, along with the remains of nine Neanderthals. Chassouant uncovered the use of pine in Roman wine.

Romans first drank wine in 121 BC – the first vintage was made from Aglianico grapes that grew on the slopes of Mount Falernus. The wine was named Falernian (Latin: Falernum) and was a robust white wine popular in the classical Roman period (200 BC-455 AD). The area is also known for the  Grotta Guattari, one of the oldest Neanderthal sites in Italy.

The artist Caravaggio as Young Bacchus, Self-Portrait,
Borghese Museum, Rome

However, it was thought that the Greeks invented wine – mythology tells the story of how the Greek God Dionysos (the Roman god Bacchus) gave a vine tree to a noble from Attica called Ikarios, who made wine and shared it with shepherds. The Greeks also used pine resin in their amphorae.

The Ancient Egyptians also drank fermented liquids – and the Ancient Chinese distilled alcohol from rice (‘sura’) and drank it from 2000 BC onwards.

The Romans trampled grapes to make wine – but when presses became common in wine making, wines made from trampled grapes became highly prized.

Wine has always been important to the Romans – and it just might be, given the recent research, that they actually pined for it!

You can read the new research into Roman wine making at PLOS ONE.

Sanitas tua! (Your health!)

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