Ancient Roman Wines

'Bacchus' painting by Michelangelo
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Ancient Romans regularly enjoyed wine (vinum) of fine, aged vintage, or cheap and new—depending on the consumer's finances. It wasn't only grapes and the land on which they grew that imparted their flavor to the wine. The containers and metals with which the acidic beverage came in contact also affected the taste. The wine was usually mixed with water (to reduce potency), and any number of other ingredients, to alter the acidity or improve clarity.

Some wines, such as Falernian were higher in alcohol content than others.

"There is now no wine known that ranks higher than the Falernian; it is the only one, too, among all the wines that takes fire on the application of flame."
Pliny

From Grapes to Inspiration

Men, naked on bottom except for a subligaculum (a type of Roman underwear or loincloth), stomped on ripe grapes harvested into a shallow vat. Then they put the grapes through a special wine press (torculum) to extract all remaining juice. The result of the stomp and press was an unfermented, sweet grape juice, called mustum, and solid particles that were strained out. Mustum could be used as is, combined with other ingredients, or processed further (fermented in buried jars) to produce wine fine enough to inspire poets or to add the gift of Bacchus to feasts. Doctors recommended certain varieties of wine as wholesome and prescribed some varieties as part of their healing therapies.

Strabo and the Choicest Wines

There was great variety in the quality of the wine, depending on factors like aging and cultivation.

"The Caecuban Plain borders on the Gulf of Caietas; and next to the plain comes Fundi, situated on the Appian Way. All these places produce exceedingly good wine; indeed, the Caecuban and the Fundanian and the Setinian belong to the class of wines that are widely famed, as is the case with the Falernian and the Alban and the Statanian."
Lacus Curtius Strabo

  • Caecubum—from poplar swamps by the Gulf of Amyclae, in Latium. The best Roman wine, but it was no longer superior by the time of the elder Pliny.

    Setinum—hills of Setia, above the Appian forum. A wine Augustus is said to have enjoyed, the top wine from the time of Augustus.

  • Falernum—from the slopes of Mt. Falernus on the border between Latium and Campania, from the Aminean grape. Falernum is usually cited as the best Roman wine. It was a white wine that was aged 10-20 years until it was amber-colored. Subdivided into:
    • Caucinian
    • Faustian (best)
    • Falernian.
  • Albanum—wines from the Alban Hills kept for 15 years; Surrentinum (kept for 25 years), Massicum from Campania, Gauranum, from the ridge above Baiae and Puteoli, Calenum from Cales, and Fundanum from Fundi were next best.
  • Veliterninum—from Velitrae, Privernatinum from Privernum, and Signinum from Signia -- Volscian wines were next best.
  • Formianum—from the Gulf of Caieta.
  • Mamertinum (Potalanum)—from Messana.
  • Rhaeticum—from Verona (Augustus' favorite, according to Suetonius)
  • Mulsum—not a variety, but any wine sweetened with honey (or must), mixed in just before drinking, referred to as an aperitif.
  • Conditura—like mulsum, not a variety; wine mixed with herbs and spices: 

    "The principal substances employed as conditurae were, 1. sea-water; 2. turpentine, either pure, or in the form of pitch (pix), tar (pix liquida), or resin (resina). 3. Lime, in the form of gypsum, burnt marble, or calcined shells. 4. Inspissated must. 5. Aromatic herbs, spices, and gums; and these were used either singly, or cooked up into a great variety of complicated confections."
    Wine in the Roman World

    Sources

    • Wine and Rome

    • Wine in the Roman World

    • Martial's Christmas Winelist," by T. J. Leary; Greece & Rome (Apr. 1999), pp. 34-41.

    • "Vinum Opimianum," by Harry C. Schnur; The Classical Weekly (Mar. 4, 1957), pp. 122-123.

    • "Wine and Wealth in Ancient Italy," by N. Purcell; The Journal of Roman Studies (1985), pp. 1-19.

    • 14th book of Pliny's Natural History

    • 12th book of Columella

    • 2d book of Virgil or Vergil's Georgics