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Pompeii wine rises from the ashes

Winemakers in Italy's Campania region have recreated the type of wine the ancient Pompeiians would have been drinking before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79 - and will be auctioning the first vintage next week.

The wine, called Villa dei Misteri (House of the Mysteries) after one of Pompeii’s major attractions, is made from vines planted on ancient vineyard sites set aside for experimentation seven years ago.

The Campania sites were discovered by archaeologists while working in the shadow of Vesuvius. The volcano famously erupted in AD79 destroying Pompeii in the process.

Local producer Piero Mastroberardino was asked by the superintendent of Pompeii, Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, to take up the challenge in 1996. He planted the first vines on the site for 2000 years, and the 2001 vintage, an IGT Pompeii, is now ready for sale.

The type of grapes grown in the 1st century AD were identified from casts of vine roots preserved by lava flow during the AD79 eruption.

Ancient texts were also consulted, for detailed information on grape varieties and ancient viticultural practices. ‘Writers such as Pliny in his Historia Naturalis are precise on viticulture,’ Mastroberardino says.

Campania is well known for its dry white wines, but local red grape varieties Piedirosso and Sciascinoso were selected for the task. Most of Pompeii’s historic frescos – including those in the Villa dei Misteri – depict drinking and pouring red wine (see above).

Mastroberardino followed the Roman cultivation and wine-making methods described by Pliny ‘to the letter’, avoiding modern vinification techniques and planting at a density of 8000 vines per hectare. ‘Strangely enough, after 2000 years, wine-making techniques continue to be based on the principle of temperature control,’ he says.

‘Although we have descriptions of the wine, we cannot know for sure what it tasted like,’ says Professor Guzzo. ‘But this is the closest we can get to the wine that was drunk in the dining rooms of Pompeii.’

Government agricultural regulations prevented scientists from developing vines genetically from the remains of seeds found in the ruins of Pompeii, though researchers were able to study the residue of wine found in amphorae at the site.

Six bottles of Villa dei Misteri 2001 are to be presented to the president of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, while the remaining 1715 bottles will go under the hammer at Rome’s Cavalieri Hilton Hotel on 29 April. The proceeds will be used to help restore Pompeii’s wine cellars.


Written by Josie Buchart 24 April 2003

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