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Roman wine had walnut aromas and spice hints, suggests study

Fresh clues about ancient Roman wines have been uncovered by exploring winemakers’ use of specialist clay vessels, similar to those in modern-day Georgia, according to researchers.

It’s no secret the Romans loved wine, but there has been debate about the look and taste of styles that would have graced dinner tables.

New research has suggested that winemaking techniques linked to the use of clay vessels known as ‘dolia’ likely produced wines that were slightly spicy with key aromas of roasted walnuts and toasted bread. 

Dolia have been somewhat overlooked by archaeologists studying ancient craftsmanship, said the authors, writing in the Antiquity journal.

‘[Yet] these vessels were highly valued items that were made by skilled artisans using specially selected clay mixtures.’

Alongside archaeological evidence and ancient texts, the authors built a possible profile of Roman wine styles by exploring the continued use of earthenware ‘qvevri’ in modern-day Georgia, where wine has been produced for more than 8,000 years.

Roman winemakers appeared to know that burying dolia in the ground helped to regulate temperature during fermentation, and this also contributed to the development of flor yeasts on the surface of the wine.

This process produces a compound known as sotolon, ‘which is key to the slightly spicy taste of flor wines (and indeed many qvevri wines), and imparts aromas of toasted bread, apples, roasted walnuts and curry’, said the authors, citing earlier work.

The porous nature of dolia, like qvevri, likely also allowed for a degree of controlled oxidation, said the study, noting that Roman winemaking appeared to involve greater precision than previously assumed.

It added that long maceration times and ageing on lees were likely to have been features of Roman winemaking.

There isn’t yet any direct bioarchaeological evidence for ‘vinification on the lees inside dolia’, but findings of grape seeds and residues inside some dolia and amphorae offer hints, said the researchers.

Ageing on lees may have helped to improve stability in the finished wine, while extended maceration – leaving grape skins in contact with the juice – could explain the range of wine colours described by ancient texts.

‘Romans didn’t make a distinction between white or red vinification, they just vinified a lot of these grapes the same way,’ Dr. Dimitri Van Limbergen, study coauthor from Ghent University’s archaeology department, told Decanter recently.

‘So you must have these kind of macerated, oxidative, amber-coloured wines quite often.’

Dr. Van Limbergen, who is coauthor of newly published book Methods in Ancient Wine Archaeology, also spoke about his earlier research on Roman vineyards.

He said he was particularly interested in how agroforestry techniques employed by grape growers at the time may have relevance to climate change challenges in vineyards today.

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