Most people have a vague idea that the ancient Romans enjoyed wine, but what was their wine actually like? A new interdisciplinary study provides fresh insights into the sensory qualities and production techniques of Roman wine that challenge our current understanding.

Through a comparison with the traditional winemaking methods still practiced today in the country of Georgia, the researchers shed new light on how wine was made and experienced by the Romans. In Georgia, large earthenware vessels called qvevri have been used for over 8,000 years to ferment and age wine – a technique very similar to the dolia pots that were ubiquitous in Roman wine cellars.

Examining the parallels between qvevri and dolia winemaking provides a unique lens for interpreting ancient Roman winemaking practices described in historical texts.

Both involved fully burying large porous clay pots in the ground, which helped regulate fermentation temperature and provided ideal conditions for natural yeasts. Within these egg-shaped vessels, convection currents gently stirred up solids during fermentation, promoting uniformity.

Contrary to previous ideas, the study suggests Roman winemaking was not focused on producing what we would consider “white wine” today – rather, grapes of all colors were fermented with their skins and solids intact.

This helped extract color, tannins and flavor compounds to produce a diverse range of hues, from pale to deep red-black, matching descriptions in historical writings. Leaving the grape skins and seeds in contact during fermenting and aging also made the wines more stable without preservatives.

Another key finding is the likely role of natural yeasts called “flor” that form a protective layer on maturing wine surfaces. These yeasts create aromatic compounds including the spicy-smelling sotolon common in fine Roman wines.

The porous clay pots and cool underground cellars promoted optimal flor development. Experiments have since recreated amber-hued wines with Roman grape varieties and flor yeasts.

Rather than mundane storage jars, dolia were precisely made using special clays that could impart intriguing flavors to wine over months of aging.

Their composition, size, and burial setting together influenced a wine’s characteristics – Roman winemakers could craft diverse styles by adjusting these factors. Regional clay sources were even exported over long distances due to their valued properties for wine vessels.

By incorporating modern oenological knowledge and ethnographic examples, this study fundamentally changes how we perceive the production techniques, sensory qualities and cultural value of Roman wine.

More research combining archaeology, archaeometry and experimental techniques continues to unravel mysteries of life in the ancient Roman world through their relationship with wine. Rediscovering their techniques may one day allow modern winemakers to recreate tastes from antiquity.


Sources

Van Limbergen D, Komar P. Making wine in earthenware vessels: a comparative approach to Roman vinification. Antiquity. 2024:1-17. doi:10.15184/aqy.2023.193


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