Pliny The Elder And His Remarkable Contribution to The Wine World
“Who can entertain a doubt that some kinds of wine are more agreeable to the palate than others…whether it is that it is owing to the cask, or to some other fortuitous circumstance?” – Pliny The Elder
Pliny The Elder might have been the first wine critic. His writings in The Natural History are some of the finest records we have of wine cultivation and variety from two thousand years ago. But who was this man whose writings have withstood the test of time? How did he know so much about wine, and what ancient grapes was he writing about?
Pliny The Elder: A Short History
Pliny The Elder was born sometime in the first century AD and died in 79 AD. He came to Rome at ten years old when the infamous emperor Caligula was in power. It was in Rome that Pliny met Publius Pomponius Secundus, a poet, who infused his passion for the written word into the younger Pliny.
Throughout Pliny’s life of military service, working as a lawyer, and criticizing emperor Nero, he never gave up writing. His only work that still exists is The Natural History, a multi-volume book about everything he knew about anthropology, botany, geography, zoology, and enology.
He died shortly after finishing the book when he tried to save those in Pompeii during the sudden eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Pliny On Wine
Pliny wrote extensively on wine in Ancient Rome. He claimed that viticulture came from the Middle East and said the origins of winemaking in Europe came from Bulgaria. He also recommended wine-growing techniques like growing grapes on a gazebo-like contraption called a pergola. While some of his advice made sense, other recommendations haven’t withstood the test of time.
Pliny the Elder said that wine could be used as an antidote to poisonous hemlock, which doesn’t seem to be true. He also claimed that menstrual blood turns new wine sour and causes other crops to go bad.
Ancient Grape Varieties Mentioned by Pliny
Pliny the Elder’s possible greatest contribution was his listing of wines. He has a chapter in Natural History about the best wines of the time, ancient wines (including wines from Homer’s time and the founding of Rome), second-rate wine varieties, foreign grapes, and more.
His complete encyclopedia is one of the best ancient histories of wine that we have today.
Here are just a few out of hundreds of the grape varieties that Pliny the Elder mentioned.
“The very highest rank is given to the Aminean grape, on account of the body and durability of its wine, which improves with old age. There are five varieties of the Aminean grape; of these, the smaller germana, or “sister” grape, has a smaller berry than the rest, and flowers more strongly, being able to tear up against rain and tempestuous weather; a thing that is not the case with the larger germana, though it is less exposed to danger when attached to a tree than when supported only by a trellis.”
Pliny the Elder enjoyed this white grape variety and described it as a strong, full-bodied wine. Some reports say this was an early variety of Traminer, but there is no DNA evidence.
“The second rank belongs to the vines of Nomentum, the wood of which is red…The grapes of this vine produce less wine than usual, in consequence of the extraordinary quantity of husk and lees they throw off: but the vine is remarkably strong, is well able to stand the frost, and is apt to receive more detriment from drought than from rain, from heat than from cold; hence it is that those are looked upon as the best that are grown in cold and moist localities. That variety which has the smallest grape is considered the most fruitful: the one which has a jagged leaf is less productive.”
Pliny considered the white-graped Nomentana to be one of the best wines of the time. Some reports say this was an early variety of Traminer, but there is no DNA evidence.
“Livia Augusta, who lived to her eighty-second year, attributed her longevity to the wine of Pucinum, as she never drank any other. This wine is grown near a bay of the Adriatic, not far from Mount Timavus, upon a piece of elevated rocky ground, where the sea-breeze ripens a few grapes, the produce of which supplies a few amphoræ: there is not a wine that is deemed superior to this for medicinal purposes. I am strongly of opinion that this is the same wine, the produce of the Adriatic Gulf, upon which the Greeks have bestowed such wonderful encomiums, under the name of Prætetianum.”
We don’t know exactly what grapes Pliny was talking about here, but we do know that they were grown in the area with unique soil that extends to Solvenia.
“The late Emperor Augustus preferred the Setinum to all others, and nearly all the emperors that have succeeded him have followed his example, having learnt from actual experience that there is no danger of indigestion and flatulence resulting from the use of this liquor: this wine is grown in the country that lies just above Forum Appii.”
“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. There are three varieties of it—the rough, the sweet, and the thin.”
The “Wine of the Caesars” hails from a region between Lazio and Campania in Italy. Three different varieties grew on different parts of the hill.
“…the Surrentine wines, also, the growth of only stayed vines, which are especially recommended to invalids for their thinness and their wholesomeness. Tiberius Cæsar used to say that the physicians had conspired thus to dignify the Surrentinum, which was, in fact, only another name for generous vinegar; while Caius Cæsar, who succeeded him, gave it the name of “noble vappa.”
Pliny considered Surrentium wine to be light and acidic, a variety of Aminean. As you can see, some of the emperors didn’t enjoy the wine and called it nothing more than fancy vinegar.
“The fourth rank, at the public banquets, was given by the late Emperor Julius-he was the first, in fact, that brought them into favour, as we find stated in his Letters—to the Mamertine wines, the produce of the country in the vicinity of Messana, in Sicily. The finest of these was the Potulanum, so called from its original cultivator, and grown on the spots that lie nearest to the mainland of Italy.”
While Pliny mentioned many other different grape varieties, he concluded that the importance is not so much the grape variety but the land and soil they’re grown in, which we call terroir today.
If it wasn’t for Pliny the Elder’s careful chronicling much of what we know about ancient wines would be lost. Not only did he show that the ancients did care about the taste of their wines, but he also set the groundwork for modern viticulture classifications of regions and estates based on the quality of their wines.
So, the next time that you look for your favorite appellation or producer think of the ancient Romans who were doing something similar millennia ago. Cheers!
This Day In Wine History
79 AD: Mount Vevusis decimated Pompeii. Pliny the Elder died of smoke inhalation on the shores outside of Pompeii. Before the eruption, Pompeii was a beautiful and luxurious city with many wineries. Today the Mastroberardino family has revitalized some of this wine with their Villa dei Misteri Project. They now produce wine using the same methods that the ancients of the area used, growing the grapes in the nutrient-rich volcanic soil.
Want to read more? Try these books!
Entire Natural History online: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0137%3Abook%3D14%3Achapter%3D8#note-link15
Modern Pompeii Wine