Roman Vinum – the Wine of the Romans
In antiquity, wine was the only beverage recognized by all nations of the Mediterranean. As today, there was the separation into vinum album, white wine, and vinum atrum, red wine – translated: dark wine. In between there were of course many nuances. Plinius, for example, listed four categories: vinum album (white), vinum fluvum (yellow), vinum sanguineum (blood red), and vinum nigrum (black). And in his cookbook, Apicius even passed down a recipe for accelerating the process by which wine becomes lighter in storage.
The Romans drank much more red wine than white. The ancient wine-drinkers preferred the taste of a vinum dulce (sweet wine), and some top locations produced praedulce (very sweet). Even the Romans had a wide variety of wine types. So far, around 185 kinds of Roman wine have been found. These can be roughly divided into vinum austerum (dry), vinum tenue (translated with “in between” – probably something like semi-dry), and vinum dulce (sweet).
Romans Drank a Lot of Wine
In the Roman Empire, wine was a mass product that could be bought in all areas and was transported in amphorae, in the Mediterranean region in skins, and in Northern Europe in casks. The trend toward wine casks spread starting with the imperial period. Wine was produced in large amounts, and the Romans always drank it. For example in the military, in Fort Vindolanda in Britannia, on one day 73 modii (that’s 634 liters) were passed out to a garrison of 500 men, and from sunken trade ships researchers have calculated that in the 1st century BC 50,000 hectoliters of wine were imported annually to Gaul from Italy.
Wine as the People’s Drink
Not only citizens and legionnaires drank wine in the Roman Empire. Slaves were allowed to drink wine, too. Only for women was there originally a prohibition from drinking wine in order to prevent licentious behavior. This prohibition was lifted in the late Republic, however. During the imperial period, women could also drink at the feasts without anyone finding it offensive. Supposedly, some women were able to drink more wine than their fellow male guests at the banquets! However, when Rome’s citizens once again complained about climbing wine prices under Emperor Augustus and demanded state policies to secure wine consumption, the emperor refused and pointed to the new construction of an aqueduct, the Aqua Virgo, with the argument that no one had to go thirsty in Rome! But of course, only water flowed there!
People who drank pure wine in antiquity were considered drunkards. Instead, Romans enjoyed wine mixed with water. The mixing ratio varied depending on tastes, the time of day, and the person serving the wine. Usually more water was poured than wine. An equal mixing ratio was reserved for the saturnalia or other festivals. That had to do not only with a person’s reputation, but it was also due to the fact that ancient wine was usually stored in a concentrated form. The stored wines usually had an oily consistency and an alcohol content of up to 18 percent, and they therefore didn’t taste very good pure. In some parts of the country outside of Rome, wine was avoided, for example with the Thracians or the Scythians.
Wine as a Mass Product
If you ordered wine, then in ancient times you got it already mixed with water. In the first two centuries AD, wine had become a mass product that everyone could afford. In Pompeii, a cup of regular wine cost one as, wine of better quality was two asses, and the Falerno, a very high quality white wine, was four asses. Piquette was much cheaper. This led to many Romans starting to consume wine in the morning and not with the main meal, the cena, which usually took place in the afternoon hours.
Development of Wine Cultivation in Antiquity
In the early first century AD, Greek wine still dominated. But good Italian wine quickly supplanted most Greek wines. Mamertino from Sicily, Massicum, Alban, and Caecuban wines were only some of the top quality products. The dry Setine was Emperor Augustus’ favorite wine. Opinions differed on that wine, though, and the emperors Tiberius and Gaius thought the supposedly fine wine to be nothing more than noble vinegar. In provinces such as Gaul or Germania, wine cultivation developed together with Romanization. In order to protect the domestic market, Italian traders convinced Emperor Domitian (51-96 AD) to prohibit the cultivation of refined varieties north of the Alps (outside of Italy). The prohibition was not lifted until 280 AD under Emperor Probus.
Top Quality Wine for the Romans
In the late Republic and the 1st century AD, the Romans considered the amber-colored Falerno to be THE top wine. As so often happens, this wine lost its top position as ever more of it was produced and the quality suffered. The wine originating in northern Campania was available in varieties ranging from sweet to dry. Horace and Martial even praised its taste. The best vintage of antiquity was considered to be the so-called Opimian, a Falerno wine that was pressed under the Consul Lucius Opimius in 121 BC. It was not only qualitatively good but there were also large enough quantities that even around 200 years later there were still amphorae filled with it. According to Plinius, however, this wine was no longer palatable and tasted like bitter honey.
Wine in Varying Quality
Even in antiquity the various wines could only be kept for certain periods of time. Good quality wine didn’t fully mature for years or even decades. The front-runner here was the wine from Surrentine, which had to age for at least 25 years. Falerno and Alban wine needed to age for around 15 years. The Romans stored a good Sabine wine for around seven years, and the Cuman and Nomentan were aged for about five years. The better wines produced for mass consumption were stored for three to four years – at least that is what numerous labels indicate. Most cheap local wines were pressed for fast consumption. Even then wines were blended in order to have a longer shelf life. The legal definition of “old wine” has also been passed down: these were wines that were still palatable after a year. But most wines didn’t make it to this deadline. The name the Romans gave must which had turned was vappa. This was sold at rock-bottom prices and then used for posca – mixed with water.
Spiced Wine in the Bathwater!
What is still typical for many Greek wines today was commonplace for the Romans: before the wine was filled into amphorae or other containers, resin (resina) was added to improve the storage suitability. Even today that is typical for Retsina, produced in Greece, which gets its name from vinum resinatum – wine mixed with resin. A similar taste could be obtained with cypress twigs, pine needles, and myrtle berries. There is even talk of smoking by the Romans in order to give the wine more substance! Romans made dessert or spiced wines according to individual recipes. Around 50 recipes have been found: wine mixed with vermouth was called absintum, if there were rose petals in it then it was rosatum, violet leaves made violatum, and pepper made conditum or piperatum. Anise seed, dill, fennel, bay leaves, mint, pistachios, or juniper also made their way into the spices for ancient wines. Spiced wines were also used by the Romans for medicinal purposes. Squill wine, for example, was supposed to help a chronic cough. And Emperor Elagabal supposedly put spiced wine in his bathwater!
Mulsum – the Roman Source of Vitality: Mead
Mulsum, mead, was also very popular with the Romans and was thought to have health benefits. The Romans also turned must into mead. In a mixing ratio of one to four and up to ten, the Romans drank it or liked to mix it with spices and store it in clay containers for weeks for fermentation. Even in antiquity, mulsum was drunk as an aperitif. A nice anecdote on this: When Emperor Augustus asked the 100-year-old Romilius Pollio in a private audience to what he attributed his physical and mental vitality, Pollio replied: “Inside mead, outside oil.”
Pure Wine for the Romans
On hot days, the Romans also liked to drink their wine ice-cold, and even in those times they warmed themselves on cold nights with hot spiced wine. Since the Romans often spiced their wine, they didn’t just pour it from an amphora into a cup, but first ran it through a sieve in order to filter out the residue and ingredients. However, not all consumers of wine, especially Plinius the Elder, approved of the “methods of refining” and called for a merum (unfalsified, pure wine). Inscriptions on cups pass on this demand. After all, with all of the different wine varieties, there were also those who deceitfully blended the wines. Columella believed pure wine that was able to be stored with no additives to be the most important criterion of quality. Gaul was considered to be the blending capital, but some blends proved to be very useful, as they led to discoveries of medical applications: for example as a laxative. By the way, Opian wine was the favorite kind to fake. Often, the crooked sellers just put another label on the amphorae.
Roman Spirits from Fruit
Besides classic wine, Romans also made must from apples, pears, dates, pomegranates, or quinces. Often the local must was not only used for culinary enjoyment but also in medicine. Spirits like brandy were likely unfamiliar to the Romans. The first predecessors of brandy showed up with the Asian steppe peoples, who produced a kind of milk schnapps. In the 9th century AD the process of making brandy was first described by the Arabs. The final product was usually used in medicine, however. In Europe, by the way, the production of aqua ardens (fire water) is mentioned in writing for the first time in 1100. The quick development of numerous types can be attributed primarily to iatrochemistry, the search for perfect medicinal cures.