Wine Production in Pompeii and Campania in Roman Times
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Roman history is familiar with Pompeii. It is the town overlooking the Bay of Naples in southern Italy, which was buried under volcanic ash and rock after Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. The city has yielded rich dividends since its excavation began over 250 years ago. For instance, it allows visitors to walk through a sizeable Roman town and see it as it was two millennia ago. Moreover, the frescoes and wall paintings preserved there are among the best. However, the window Pompeii opened on wine production and viticulture in early imperial Rome is less well-known.
Pompeii was a major center of wine production at the time. Indeed, the wider Campania region of southwestern Italy was probably the foremost viticulture district in all of Italy under Roman rule. The Romans were particularly fond of the surrentine, massic, and falernian wines produced in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius.
These could have different uses. For instance, surrentine was described by the emperor Tiberius as ‘high-class vinegar,’ but its popularity may have largely been owing to its use for medicinal purposes.
Much of our wine production information here derives from Pliny the Elder’s writings. His encyclopedic work, Natural History, noted the different types of grapes grown in the mineral-rich soils around Pompeii and the wider Campania regions. These included columbina purpurea, now called piedirosso; vitis oleagina, which is equivalent to today’s sciascinoso or olivella; vitis hellenica, which is aglianico; and vitis aminea gemina, otherwise known as greco.
Discovery of Urban Vineyards in Pompeii
Pliny’s writings and the many excavations undertaken at Pompeii, and surrounding regions provided a major insight by the mid-twentieth century into wine production in Pompeii and its hinterland in Roman times. This indicated that the region around the town was dotted with vineyards used to produce the kinds of wine Pliny had written about. However, further revelations were still be made.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, archaeologists made some remarkable discoveries. These focused on the part of the city called the foro boario, north of the town’s amphitheater. This was a large open space that had first been excavated in 1755. For 200 years, archaeologists had believed it was a cattle market, but new excavations revealed that it was the site of an urban vineyard. The remains of over 2,000 vines were identified here, and the spacing between them was exactly along the lines recommended by Lucius Columella, a leading Roman writer on agricultural matters of the first century A.D.
The evidence was clear. The citizens of Pompeii had been growing grapes inside the town walls and making them into wine.
These findings in the early 1970s were furthered in the mid-1990s when archaeologists conclusively determined that many vineyards were established inside Pompeii’s town walls before Vesuvius buried the city. People grew grapes for wine production in their backyards and between streets. This had the added advantage of acting as pre-industrial air conditioning, the vines casting the house in the shade. It was then pressed into grape juice and fermented in the town. Thus, what was revealed was an entirely urban wine industry.
Wine Production Methods in Roman Pompeii
It has also been possible to determine exactly how this wine industry functioned. Despite the advent of machinery and modern technology, viticulture has changed little in its basic steps over the years. Effectively, the grapes are grown in vineyards. They are then harvested when ripe, collected and taken to a winery. There the grapes were pressed by slaves called calcatores until the juice had been separated. Following this, it was placed into fermentation vessels for the transformation of it into wine.
In the days that followed, the grape pulp and skins, which were left over after the crushing process, were left to macerate until they became more liquid-like. These, too, were pressed with an ancient torcular and added to the fermentation vessels. This facilitated the natural fermentation process as the wild yeasts present on the skins of the grapes activated the wine fermentation process.
The vats in which the fermentation process was carried out were not temperature controlled. Consequently, they were often left open in the early days to control the fermentation, a process that must have been quite violent for the first ten days. When fermentation calmed down, the vats or dolias were closed with large terracotta lids, and it was at this point that the maturation process began. As with modern winemaking, this could last months or even years, depending on what kind of wines were produced.
The wine was aged in Roman times, though not to the same extent as it often is today. In general, wines would be left to age for a minimum of a few months but a maximum of about five years. The idea of aging wines for several decades, which is commonplace amongst skilled wine producers and major wineries today, was virtually unheard of in ancient times.
These ancient wines were very different from what we would understand as the model of wine today. For instance, Roman wines had very high alcohol content and were often very dense. They were nearly always watered down and drank diluted.
Moreover, since the grape seeds and stems were squeezed together, the resulting wine was often quite bitter and had to be altered to reduce its sharp profile. A common way of doing so was adding strong spices such as cinnamon, saffron, and myrrh or sweeteners, the most common being honey. It was also very common to use pewter containers to store wine, whereby the presence of lead had the effect of sweetening the wine and removing some of its acidity.
Resurrecting the Pompeiian Wine Industry
Because of the excavations undertaken between the late 1960s and the mid-1990s, it became clear that vineyards had existed within the walls of Pompeii, and wine had been produced there in an entirely urban setting. Then a project was undertaken to resurrect the ancient wine of Pompeii. This was a collaborative initiative between the Archaeological Superintendence of Pompeii and the famous Mastroberardino winery.
The project focused on replanting vines in the exact areas which had been used as vineyards before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. From an archaeological perspective, this was a sound approach as it would not disrupt the historical integrity of the site but rather add to its status as a piece of living history.
After much deliberation, the piedirosso, sciascinoso, and aglianico grape varietals were selected as those planted at Pompeii. As we saw earlier, these were some of those noted by Pliny as amongst the foremost varietals used in Campania in the first century A.D. These were planted in various locations such as the Garden of the Fugitives, so that by the early 2000s, the visitor to Pompeii would have seen vines in many parts of the city, much as they had grown 2,000 years earlier.
In 2001, the first vintage of the wine called Villa dei Misteri was released. This was produced from a blend of piedirosso and sciascinoso. The name derives from the Villa dei Misteri, meaning the Villa of the Mysteries, one of the foremost villas in Pompeii, on the walls of which frescoes depicting a wine-initiation rite have been uncovered. Only 1721 bottles of this first batch of Pompeii’s resurrected wine were produced. These were sold at auction to enthusiasts, and the proceeds from these sales were used to restore the ancient cellar of the foro boario. This site was first identified as a vineyard in the late 1960s after archaeologists had long believed it was a cattle market.
Today the vineyards have been expanded across Pompeii, though always in consultation with archaeologists to ensure the site is not compromised by expanding vines and roots. Today vines extend along the foro boario, the House of Triclinium, the Garden of the Fugitives, and the House of the Europa Ship. Walking among them is like taking a journey through time and traditions. It is a unique experience that, day after day, allows us to discover the history of Italian wine.
Rebecca Ann Hughes, ‘Grape Harvesting and Wine Making in the Shadow of Vesuvius,’ Forbes, October 19, 2021.
Emlyn Dodd, ‘Pressing Issues: A New Discovery in the Vineyard of Region I.20 Pompeii’, in Archeologia Classica, Vol. 68 (2017), pp. 577–588.
Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, ‘Large Vineyard Discovered in Ancient Pompeii: Root and Stake Cavities Reveal Vineyard of A.D. 79’, in Science, Vol. 180, No. 4088 (May 25, 1973), pp. 821–830.
Patricia Thompson, ‘Back from the Ashes: Resurrecting the Vineyards of Pompeii,’ in Gastronomica, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Fall, 2004), pp. 78–81.
On this Day
January 28, 1896 – On this day in 1896, the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli died in his native city of Naples in southern Italy at 72. Fiorelli was one of the significant figures in preserving the remains of the Roman town of Pompeii for posterity after it had been rediscovered and gradually excavated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For instance, he introduced professionalization into the excavation work undertaken in the 1860s. First, he began the process of having the frescoes from the town’s many villas copied for reproduction in museums. This prevented ‘archaeologists’ and ‘classicists’ of questionable ethics from attempting to remove some of the remains from Pompeii like Lord Elgin had ripped the marble edifices off of the Parthenon in Athens some decades earlier and sent them to England. It was also under Fiorelli’s oversight that the first vineyards for the production of wine were discovered at Pompeii. These were excavated from beneath three meters of solid ash, and Fiorelli introduced the idea of using plaster casts to recreate the forms of the plants being revealed under the debris from the volcano. Scientific advancements have since allowed the authorities who manage the site to begin effectively replicating the vineyards buried there nearly 2,000 years ago.
May 25, 1973 – On this day in 1973, a study was published in the journal Science which advertised to the broader academic community details of the discovery of a vineyard in the ruins of the town of Pompeii in southern Italy. The vines were reported formed part of the very numerous wine industry of the Campania region before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius there in 79 A.D. and the burial of the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum under an enormous layer of volcanic ash and rock. The discovery of the vineyards in the early 1970s allowed historians and archaeologists to reconstruct the nature of the wine industry and viticulture in this part of Italy during the heyday of the Roman Empire. Moreover, as knowledge of the Pompeiian wine industry expanded in the twenty or so years that followed, from the mid-1990s, efforts were undertaken to begin resurrecting the Pompeiian wine industry as it would have existed two millennia ago.
Want to read more? Try these books!
 ‘Campania’, ‘Surrentine’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).
 ‘Pliny’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).
 Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, ‘Large Vineyard Discovered in Ancient Pompeii: Root and Stake Cavities Reveal Vineyard of A.D. 79’, in Science, Vol. 180, No. 4088 (25 May 1973), pp. 821–830; Emlyn Dood, ‘Pompeii is Famous for its Ruins and Bodies, but what about its wine?’, The Conversation, 4 November 2020.
 J. J. Rossiter, ‘Wine and Oil Processing at Roman Farms in Italy’, in Phoenix, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Winter, 1981), pp. 345–361.