What did the Romans give us? Some damn good wines that are still going strong today, says Jeff Cox

What did the Romans give us? Some damn good wines that are still going strong today, says Jeff Cox

AS a schoolboy Latin student, I longed for just a taste of ancient Rome – to watch a gladiator’s fate dangle on an emperor’s whim, to hear a thousand trumpets blaring a legion’s triumph, to recline on cushions as slave girls danced towards me, bearing cakes and wine. Still, at least as an adult I can taste the wines of Rome, because the grapes the Romans used are still grown today.

The Romans had very different ideas about what makes good wine. They liked it sweet, oxidised and flavoured with herbs and spices such as rosemary, cardamom and myrrh. They also liked it diluted with hot water, sea water, snow from an ice house or just plain water. A little flavour of the pine pitch used to seal the amphora was always good and, if it wasn’t sweet enough, they threw salts of lead into it, which may have sweetened it, but also destroyed their brains.

The wine held in greatest esteem in ancient Rome, from the middle of the 2nd century BC through to the 3rd century AD, was Falernian, a white produced on the southern slopes of Monte Massico, on the western Italian coast, south of Rome and north of Naples. Falernian was made from the Aminea Gemina grape, which arrived in Sicily from Greece in about 700 BC and gradually worked its way up the boot to the slopes of Monte Massico. There it yielded three crus. The most highly prized was Faustinianum, which was grown halfway up the mountain and was sweeter and more harmonious than plain Falernian, a lighter version produced at the more fertile foot of the mountain. Caucinian, a drier and more austere wine, was grown on the mountain’s pinnacle.

Matter of taste

Falernian was a deep amber or brown colour and when old it was described as too bitter to drink, perhaps like some of the very old, intense blending sherries of today. Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD) claimed it was the only wine that would ignite if held to a flame. That sounds like brandy, but then the Romans didn’t distill spirits – or did they? Most scholars equate the ancient Aminea Gemina with modern day Greco. Attempts to revive Falernian today are called Falerno del Massico, both red (from Aglianico, Piedirosso and Primitivo) and white (from Greco and Falanghina).

The winemakers of Campania are proud of their ancient heritage and intent on preserving it. Piero Mastroberardino of the Mastroberardino winery in Irpinia, inland from Naples, says: ‘Our viticultural history excites us because it is one of the longest histories in this field. Colonisation by international varieties is forbidden by law in Irpinia!’

Mastroberardino and others may be keeping Irpinia free of international varieties, but over on the coast near Salerno, Silvia Imparato has had a huge hit with her Montevetrano, a blend of Aglianico, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, vinified by Riccardo Cotarella. This is just one Super-Campania wine that mixes the local Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon, but more are likely to appear, since Imparato’s wines fetch prices comparable to fine Bordeaux.

In ancient days Italy abounded in grape varieties. Virgil (70–19 BC) said there were so many that no one knew their number. Theophrastus (370–287 BC) wrote that there were as many types of grape as soil, which may be an early description of the concept of terroir. In his Natural History, Pliny wrote about other favoured wines, including the Nomentan made in the Sabine territory northeast of Rome. Its vines are considered the ancestors of today’s Teinturier Male. Trebulanum made undistinguished wines then, as now – we know the grape as Trebbiano.

Another Greek import to Italy, the red Vitis Hellenica, was widely planted around Naples and Salerno, and still is, although the name has been worn down in modern Italian to Aglianico. The Roman historian Livy (59 BC–17 AD) praised the wines of the fields of Taurasi, made from Vitis Hellenica. Today the only DOCG wine in Campania is Aglianico, grown on elevated volcanic soils in Irpinia.

The sweet, Muscaty Malvasia came from Monemvasia in Greece to Messina in Sicily, where it made the famous Mamertine wine so loved by the Romans. Today Malvasia is made in hundreds of places in dozens of styles.

Modern namesakes

Besides Greek vines, some native Italian kinds of vitis vinifera made excellent wines for ancient Rome. The so-called bee vine (Vitis Apiana) gave delightful honeyed wine in ancient times and still does now. We know it as Fiano and it’s well expressed in the province of Avellino, a region of highlands near Naples. In these hills, Fiano (Vitis Apiana), Greco (Aminea Gemina) and Aglianico (Vitis Hellenica) were grown in Roman days and continue to be grown today by about 50 wineries. Although most Romans favoured the wines of Campania, Caesar Augustus liked Setine wine, made in Setia in Latium, while his wife Livia went for the red wines of Pucinum, from the modern region around Postojna near Croatia.

Columella, writing in the 1st century AD, had praise for the vines of the tribe of Biturges, who lived in the region that is now called Bordeaux. He and Pliny agreed that the wines made from these grapes aged well. The local grape was called Biturica, which some believe is cognate with the word Vidure, a synonym for Cabernet Sauvignon.

Pliny described how they made wine in Rhaetia, the area around modern Verona: ‘…they gather their bunches into stone barns and let them dry until winter, when they make wine from them.’ Sound familiar? Sweet Recioto (echoing the word Rhaetia) and dry Amarone are made in the same way in the same place today. In fact, the practice of partially drying grapes, to concentrate the sugar and make sturdier sweet wine to hold longer in the somewhat porous containers of the day, continued up into Gaul, especially the Jura region of eastern France, where today Vin de Pailles is still made in the old Roman way.

So we can still taste something of the old Roman wines, but are the descendants of those vines the same? After all, farmers keep selecting new and better clones and, after 2,000 years, we’d expect some changes. ‘Any search for the exact ancient ancestors of modern varieties… must be fruitless,’ says Hanneke Wirtjes, writing in The Oxford Companion to Wine. ‘Vitis vinifera mutates so easily that the varieties themselves cannot have survived for so long in the same form.’ Piero Mastroberardino agrees. ‘A biological system like vines cannot persist without changes, which occur in order to help them survive,’ he says. ‘So we have had changes in the characteristics of the grape varieties, but they belong to the original families of Aminae [Greek] and Latinum [Roman] groups.’ And so, one assumes, they are not dissimilar from the grapes the Romans knew.

This selection of wines is as close as you’ll get to the wines of ancient Rome. All are excellent and among the very best that southern Italy produces

Greco (Aminea Gemina)

Feudi di San Gregorio, Greco di Tufo 2001****

Stunning smells of apricots, apples, fern and mint. Lively acids, a lengthy mineral finish and a hint of caramel.

Mastroberardino, Greco di Tufo Novaserra 1999 ***

Aromas of apricot, pear, peach, almond and apples, with cut hay and fern notes. Crisp acidity yet smooth on the palate, with a background of bitter almond.

Fiano (Vitis Apiana)

Feudi di San Gregorio, Fiano di Avellino 2001 ***

Fresh, clean with medium body, an elegant integration of alcohol, acid and a rich nose of flowers and fruit. Hazelnut, honey and a hint of resin on the palate.

Mastroberardino, More Maiorum Fiano di Avellino 1999 ****

Made entirely from overripe Fiano grapes. A complex nose of honey, peaches and vanilla with a slight smoky tinge. Toasted hazelnut and spices on the palate.

Giovanni Struzziero, Fiano di Avellino 2000 *****

A lovely golden straw colour, aromas like sun-warmed flowers, honey, Italian field herbs and plum flavours.

Aglianico (Vitis Hellenica)

Antonio Caggiano, Taurasi 1999 ****

A powerful, elegant Aglianico with vanilla oak, caramel and red fruits on the nose, plus spice, chocolate, leather and black cherries on the palate.

Feudi di San Gregorio, Serpico 2000 ****

Made with 100% Aglianico. Lush, with blackberries, black cherries and tar in its slightly smoky aroma. Explodes in the mouth with rich fruit, smooth tannins and beautiful structure.

Mastroberardino, Radici Taurasi 1998 *****

Intense aromas of thyme, violets and berries. In the mouth it is elegant, with plums, bitter cherry, strawberry jam and black pepper on silky tannins.

Mollettieri, Vigna Cinque Querce Taurasi 1999 ***

An elegant nose of berries, liquorice and spice, plus an interesting mix of red fruits on the palate.

Montevetrano, San Cipriano Picentino 1995 *****

If you can find a bottle, and can afford it, you’ll see what happens when Aglianico joins Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot: strawberry, cassis, white pepper aromas and subtle fruity and spicy nuances on the palate

Jeff Cox is a freelance wine writer.

Written by Jeff Cox