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Why is a vineyard growing on Rome’s Palatine Hill?

A vine project on Rome's Palatine Hill aims to link its prestigious viticultural past with its modern-day revival.

Rome’s viticultural roots run deep: two millennia ago, its vast empire was the largest producer and distributor of wine – transported and stored in amphorae and wooden barrels. While these often blended concoctions would be unrecognisable to modern palates, they were coveted throughout the ancient world.

Enological evidence is everywhere: from the 3,000-year-old Vernaccia and Malvasia grape seeds recently found in a Sardinian well, to a newly excavated wine production facility near the Appian Way, called ‘Villa of the Quintillii’: an archaeological goldmine which dates to 240 AD.

Over the centuries, the city of Rome and the surrounding region of Lazio have lost the ‘world’s greatest wine producer’ moniker, but a new project intends to reclaim its viticultural past.

This project revolves around a small, newly-planted vineyard (‘Vigna Barberini’, named for its 17th-century aristocratic owners) on the city’s Palatine Hill. These few vines symbolise Rome’s prestigious wine pedigree of old, and local producers hope that the millions of tourists who see them will connect the dots between past and present.

Gabriella Strano is the landscape architect for Parco Archeologico del Colosseo (‘Parco’), which houses Vigna Barberini. ‘The story of Rome begins with the Palatine Hill,’ she proclaims as she walks towards Vigna Barberini’s three rows of vines incongruously set among ancient ruins.

She gestures to the broader expanse of property overlooking the Roman Forum; land once the home of emperors. ‘Augustus built his palace here, on the site of the Lupercal.’ Also known as Casa di Romolo, the Lupercal is the hut where Romulus – the mythological founder and first king of Rome – and his brother, Remus, were nurtured as infants by a she-wolf.

Ficus, olea et vitis

Ancient maps and records prove the continual presence of grapevines on the Palatine. ‘From the time of the Empire to when the emperors fell, from Medieval times to the Renaissance, the vines were always here.’ Driving home the sanctity and historical weight of the place, Strano adds, ‘This place is considered sacred.’

After decades of experience with Rome’s archeological tapestry, Strano knows a few things. She has designed and overseen projects like Vigna Barberini to maintain and reference the grandeur of the Roman Empire, and to shine a light on the city’s agricultural soul.

The choice to cultivate the Bellone variety here was inspired by Pliny’s first century AD Naturalis Historia, in which he wrote about one of its ancestors, Uva Pantastica, the ‘bread grape’. By planting this variety, Strano has astutely tied the project right back to Rome’s viticultural heyday.

The vine is – according to Pliny – part of a trinity of plants which grew in the ancient Forum and represented the tenets of Roman culture, known as ‘ficus, olea et vitis’ (fig, olive, and vine). Strano explains, ‘Fig leaves covered the basket of Romulus and Remus, while the olive trees and grapevines signify sustenance and holiness; wine and oil are used during religious ceremonies.’

Strano partnered with the Cincinnato winery from Cori, an ancient hill town south of Rome, to fulfil the project’s desire to replant vines in this location. Cincinnato was named for the Roman senator, Lucio Quinzio Cincinnatus, who retired to his farm in Cori to – what else – plant vines. Bellone is today used for Cincinnato’s range of sparkling wines, from pét-nat to Brut Metodo Classico.

Gabriella-Strano-and-Giovanna-Trisorio-with-Bellone-vines-in-Vigna-Barberini

Gabriella Strano (left) and Giovanna Trisorio of Cincinnato with the Bellone vines in Vigna Barberini. Credit: Layne Randolph / Decanter

Wine heritage

A year after partnering with Cincinnato, Parco joined forces with an initiative to promote European cultural wine destinations, Iter Vitis Cultural Routes (IVCR), created by the Council of Europe. Iter Vitis president, Emanuela Panke explains the importance of sites like Vigna Barberini. ‘Wine is a tool of intercultural dialogue; it is a part of European culture, and Iter Vitis works to preserve its heritage. We want to underline the role of wine and the vine in European culture and history. Wine is part of our identity.’

Panke hopes that sites like Vigna Barberini will bring particular attention to Roman wine heritage; there are also local plans for a Roman wine history tour, which Panke supports. The tour will cover topics including Roman wine cults, vineyard archaeology and artistic commissions related to wine.

‘We are offering an alternative to people coming to Rome. You don’t have to go to the classic Forum or the classic Vatican; it’s also an option for people who have already visited. It is a different approach to the same thing we have in archaeological museums.’

While the ancient temples and palaces fell to ruins, Rome’s winemaking reputation slowly faded, too. By the 20th century, Lazio was best known for mass-produced table wine imbibed locally. However, there has been a dramatic uptick in the production of quality wine in the region, and many of the recent standouts come from rare and indigenous varieties such as Bellone, Nero Buono and Cesanese.

Standing in the way of Lazio’s return to glory may be the Romans themselves, however – encouraging establishments in the eternal city to offer local wines to their patrons seems to be an uphill battle. When asked why, one owner of an establishment in the centre of Rome replied, ‘Because tourists don’t know Lazio wine.’ A small vineyard on Palatine Hill may change that.


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