In the early days, Romans were not so fond of wine. The art of wine (vinum) making is perhaps the least significant of the many Roman contributions to the world. Although wild grapes grew in abundance and were produced in earnest throughout the Mediterranean, they are now nearly extinct.
Before the rise of the Roman empire, the Etruscans and Greeks were the most prominent wine drinkers in Italy and mastered the art of winemaking. While wine was an essential element of the Roman diet with the spread of the empire, it did not immediately become a Roman cultural staple.
The Carthaginians, who dominated the Mediterranean trade before the Romans, were wine lovers. The Punic language has given us the oldest references to wine before the widespread use of Latin. Historians believe that Carthaginians established trade routes from the Caucasus and Zagros mountains to the Mediterranean region, finally reaching Phoenicia.
During the trade interaction, the Phoenicians taught Romans about vine growing and wine production in 7th century BC. Roman vineyards began to crop up more and more throughout Italy as the power of Rome grew and eventually overpowered Carthage in the mid-2nd century BC.
Initially, Italy was primarily an agricultural civilization that focused on subsistence farming. However, as the empire expanded into lush territories like Sicily and Africa, the opportunity for other agricultural pursuits arose. Similarly, with agricultural knowledge, the local farms thrived because Rome was no longer as preoccupied with the art of battle and the expansion of the empire. During that time, wild grapes were planted and farmed in abundance.
In the 2nd century BC, wine and grape production flourished in Italy, and enormous slave-run vineyards studded the coastlines. Wine production supplanted conventional food farming that then-Emperor Domitian was forced to burn numerous vineyards in 92 AD and prohibit planting new vines to refocus agricultural production on staple foods.
Several ancient authors wrote extensively about wine’s production, economics, and cultural significance. The first Latin treatise involving Roman wine, among other agricultural interests, was Cato the Censor’s ‘De Agri Cultura.’ In his work ‘Res Rusticae,’ Varro also presented a relatively rudimentary examination of wine production as part of a more extensive treatise on overall farming (Country Matters).
One of the least-known Latin texts related to wine production may be the best example of all Roman materials on the matter. In ‘De Re Rusticae’ (On Country Matters), Columella thoroughly examined the Roman art of grape planting, wine production, and drinking. Pliny the Elder wrote in his seminal work, Historia Naturalis, that wine production in Italy had overtaken any other country in the region by the mid-2nd century BC.
At least by Roman farmers outside of Italy, wine and grape cultivation were forbidden during this time, and wine became a valuable export commodity for the Romans. While it remained a prized part of Roman life, its export value dwindled as the empire grew.
Massive vineyards were built in provinces such as Gaul and Hispania (today France and Spain) as they came under Roman authority. Italy later became a central import hub for those wines.
For a long time, the wine remained a cornerstone of the Roman diet and was prized over all other beverages of the time. The wine was a typical drink consumed at any time of day due to the low quality of drinking water. Unlike now, however, ancient wine was virtually always blended with a substantial amount of water. As old wines were stronger, both in terms of alcohol content and in terms of flavor, the dilution of the drink was necessary.
The Romans consumed wines of various varieties and flavors, combining the original grape product with a long list of flavor-altering ingredients.
Of course, wine production differed depending on the quality of the intended product. For wine productions, grapes were harvested and trodden with feet, although they were usually sent to a press for further refinement. The Tusculum, or Roman press, was frequently a simple, heavy wooden beam, but it could also be a more sophisticated machine.
The fluids were strained through a Colum, similar to a colander to separate any thick skins or other undesired items. The remaining juices were then fermented in amphorae or similar pots known as dolia. Some amphorae were buried in the sand, while others were buried in mud to accelerate fermentation.
This Day in Wine History
7th Century BC – On this day, the Phoenicians taught the Romans about vine growing and wine production. This marked the beginning of the Romans’ journey into the world of wine, which would later become a significant part of their culture and economy.
Mid-2nd Century BC – On this day, the power of Rome grew and eventually overpowered Carthage. This victory led to the establishment of more Roman vineyards throughout Italy, marking a significant shift in the agricultural focus of the empire.
2nd Century BC – On this day, wine and grape production flourished in Italy, with enormous slave-run vineyards studding the coastlines. This period marked a significant expansion of the wine industry in Rome.
92 AD – On this day, Emperor Domitian was forced to burn numerous vineyards and prohibit planting new vines to refocus agricultural production on staple foods. This event marked a significant shift in the Roman agricultural policy due to the overwhelming dominance of wine production.
Mid-2nd Century BC – On this day, Pliny the Elder wrote in his seminal work, Historia Naturalis, that wine production in Italy had overtaken any other country in the region. This marked a significant milestone in the history of Roman wine production.