In Italy, wine has been produced and appreciated at least since the times of the ancient Romans. Although at the time, in all likelihood, it was very different from the one produced with the techniques and grapes we use today. A new study, carried out by two archaeologists from the University of Ghent and Warsaw and published in the journal Antiquity, offers us an idea of what it could have been like, suggesting that it was a spicy, drinkable alcoholic drink with a complex taste, the result of techniques of production similar to those still in use today in Georgia, not surprisingly, one of the oldest wine regions in the world.
Question of dolium
The study takes its cue from dolia, large terracotta containers used in ancient Rome (and beyond) to store drinks and foodstuffs. They were often positioned buried or semi-buried in the ground in the cellars of houses and villas, as evidenced by the archaeological discoveries made in Pompeii and Boscoreale, in Campania, and in Le Muracche in Abruzzo. According to the authors of the new study, until now their role in winemaking and wine aging, as well as the contribution they gave to the taste and characteristics of drinks consumed in ancient Rome, had been underestimated by archaeology.
For a long time they were considered containers too generic to deserve further study, but recent studies have shown that they were extremely refined products, made with clays carefully chosen for their characteristics, and imported from the most renowned production areas over considerable distances. For all these reasons, they probably played a leading role in the winemaking processes of the ancient Romans. Not simple containers, therefore, but precious tools for the fermentation and aging of grapes and wines, which gave peculiar flavors to the drinks.
The wines of ancient Rome
Which ones exactly? To understand this, the two archaeologists turned their attention to the wines produced in Georgia, where traditional winemaking techniques have been experiencing a substantial renaissance in recent years. In analogy with Georgian methods, Roman wines starting from the first centuries BC were therefore probably produced in sealed dolia after a first month of fermentation in contact with the air, and partially buried in the ground. The process would have given the drinks a spicy flavor, and hints of bread, apples, curry and toasted nuts. The alcohol content was probably low, around 11 degrees.
Another interesting aspect is that of color. In the past there has often been a debate about this: were ancient Roman wines white or red? And the answer, at least according to the two authors of the study, is that both hypotheses are incorrect. The skins were probably always left to macerate with the must, and regardless of their colour, and the result was a great variability of chromatic shades, which probably ranged from white, to rosé, to red to black. Likewise, the shape and size of the dolia probably allowed producers the possibility of influencing many characteristics of their wines, guaranteeing the availability of products suitable for all tastes. As is to be expected, in fact, if you consider that wine was one of the main protagonists not only of the table, but also more generally of Roman culture.