In The Life of Brian, John Cleese as the leader of the People’s Front of Judaea asks the defiant question “What have the Romans ever done for us?” As the awkwardly plentiful answers at first trickle, and then eventually flood, in — the aqueduct, sanitation, the roads, education, law and order — one of the suddenly thoughtful revolutionaries suggests “wine”.
Whether or not the Romans did in fact introduce the cultivation of wine to Palestine — it seems hard to credit, given what we are told in chapter 9 of Genesis about Noah, the vineyard he planted, and the unfortunate consequences which overtook him when “he drank of the wine, and was drunken” — it is nevertheless easy to believe that the Romans, restless and innovative above all in agriculture, greatly improved the quality of wine wherever they went.
It is the Elder Pliny who in book XIV of his Natural History provides a wealth of information about the cultivation of vines and the making of wine in the Roman empire. The Romans had not always been particularly devoted to the grape, even though when Pliny is writing he estimates that Italy produced two thirds of all the various kinds of wine, and was in some sense wine’s natural homeland:
Supremacy in respect of the vine is to such a degree the special distinction of Italy that even with this one possession she can be thought to have vanquished all the good things of the world, even in the matter of scents, since when the vine is in blossom all over the country it gives an unsurpassable scent.
Pliny dates the beginnings of wine’s importance to the Romans around the 600th year after the founding of the city (that is, about 150 BC). For the earliest Romans the most important symbolic liquid had been milk. Romulus used milk for libations, and Numa forbad funeral pyres to be sprinkled with wine — presumably because wine was then such a scarce commodity. Ancient records of votive offerings specified milk, not wine.
But once their interest in wine had been aroused, the Romans pursued it with their customary energy. Pliny tells us about several Roman wine-growers who enjoyed especial success. There was Acilius Sthenelus, a plebeian, the son of a freedman, who improved a vineyard of not more than 60 iugera in the region of Mentana which he sold for 400,000 sesterces. Above all there was the grammarian Remmius Palaemon (an early example of the natural affinity between literature and wine), who bought a farm for 600,000 sesterces in the same region of Mentana. He had the vineyards dug and re-trenched under the superintendence of Sthenelus, and finally got the estate into such superb condition that within eight years a single vintage while still hanging on the trees was knocked down to a purchaser at a price of 400,000 sesterces.
Two facts about ancient viticulture which are at variance with modern practice can be deduced from this account of conspicuously successful Roman wine-making. The first is that the Romans (rather like, until comparatively recently, their Italian descendants) seem to have prized volume of fruit above all things, and thus had not realised the benefits to the quality of the resulting wine which can be achieved by restricting the crop and concentrating the energy of the plant into the most promising fruit. The second is that they liked to train their vines to grow up trees, sometimes to such a height that the standard contract for a vineyard worker stipulated that the cost of his funeral and grave would be covered should he fall and die while about his work.
But in other respects the Romans had anticipated some modern practices and attitudes. Pliny, at least, was committed to the concept we now associate with the French word terroir, namely the twin propositions that some sites are uniquely well-suited to particular vines, and that the resulting wine is most properly thought of as an expression of its site, in which the type of grape and the interventions of the winemaker play less important roles:
It is the country and the soil that matter, not the grape, and . . . it is superfluous to go on with a long enumeration of kinds, since the same vine has a different value in different places.
The “passi” wines that Pliny especially praises, where the grapes have been dried in the sun, have obvious modern counterparts in the Amarone wines made in Valpolicella. Our undergraduate drinking societies probably have little to learn from the drinking games of antiquity, in which “one man gets a prize for tipsiness on condition of his eating as much as he has drunk; another drinks as many cups as are demanded of him by a throw of the dice.” Pliny’s counsel for the situation of a cellar — try to make it north-facing, and keep it away from dunghills and fig-trees, as smells can easily pass into wine — still seems like good advice, even if the sources of unwanted smells are today likely to be rather different.
Other details are surprising or hard to understand. It is difficult to see much good coming of the ancient practice of mixing wine with sea-water (although we should remember the still current maxim — surprisingly not often heard in Burgundy — that vines like to breathe sea air). It would be particularly handy to know more about a wonderful grape which produces strong wine which nevertheless does not intoxicate; as well as to know which modern grape is descended from its dangerous opposite, which infallibly produces a hangover which lasts until the following lunchtime. It is not clear why Pliny believes that the thinner a wine is the more aroma it possesses, or why he thinks that an infallible sign of imminent spoilage is when the wine changes the colour of a sheet of lead dipped into it.
Other stray facts are simply tantalising. Pliny describes the wine made from a particular variety of vine which flourished in the region of Vienne, in the Rhône valley, which of itself produced a flavour of pitch in the wine. This was very much to the Roman taste, and the discovery of a vine which produced this flavour naturally would have been very exciting, because otherwise it had to be produced artificially and expensively through the use of smoke or additives. Might this grape have been an ancestor of modern-day Syrah, the noblest red grape of the area round Vienne, which even today can give a tarry taste to wine?