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A drink with… Dr. Dimitri Van Limbergen and Dr. Paulina Komar

Fresh clues about Roman wine were recently unlocked by Dr. Dimitri Van Limbergen, of the Department of Archaeology at Ghent University, and Dr. Paulina Komar, of the Faculty of History at the University of Warsaw, who combined their specialist interests to study winemakers’ use of ‘dolia’ earthenware vessels, aided by comparisons to the use of qvevri in modern-day Georgia.

Their findings were published in the Antiquity journal, and were recently reported by Decanter

Dr. Van Limbergen specialises in Roman archaeology and economic history, developing a particular focus on viticulture and wine via his PhD at the University of Pisa. Dr. Komar completed her PhD on consumption of Greek wine in Roman Italy. She is a specialist on ancient texts, with particular research interests in the history of wine, trade and economics. 

‘On a trip to Georgia I became fascinated with buried vessels making dry, fantastic amber wines, and, a few years later, I met Paulina at a conference and mentioned comparing these modern, Georgian wines to Roman wines. She said, “I’ve been thinking about this as well”.’

‘For a long time, the opinion on Roman wine was that it was badly made, that they pimped it up with spices and herbs because otherwise it was undrinkable.

‘This was mostly because there wasn’t much attention on what dolia really did to a wine. We looked at these vessels from a perspective of, “maybe they were able to make fairly decent wines with [them]”.

‘Roman winemakers weren’t able to detect certain chemical things that developed in wine. However, they knew when fermentation was going in a good or bad direction, and how to avoid certain wine flaws.

‘They buried dolia in the ground, and had different shapes depending on geographic area. We could probably study this more, but we know there were differences.

‘They made plenty of attempts to control the whole process, and we can observe it archaeologically. When the Romans started using these vessels, they were already millennia old. So, there was a lot of practical experience. The Romans probably made it even better, more efficient and [did it] on a bigger scale.

‘Most dolia were around 500 to 2,000 litres, but you have specimens of 2,000 to 3,000 litres. Especially in southern France and especially from the first century AD, you see very big estates popping up with hundreds of these dolia. Something you really see coming in the last part of the Roman Republic and first centuries of the Empire is a kind of upscaling of production and consumption of wine.

‘Economic historians are still wondering what happened in this period. [One factor is] Italy earned plenty of money due to conquests, so started to consume more and more.’

‘We know Roman elites drank certain wines. There’s an anecdote about a grandfather of Mark Antony, who was persecuted for political reasons and hidden at his friend’s house. Unfortunately, the friend’s servant went to buy a better type of wine in a tavern than he usually would… and the grandfather was found and killed because of the wine.

‘More people probably got access to decent-quality wines in the early Empire, but particular classes, such as soldiers or slaves, were mostly drinking “wines” made from leftovers from pressings with added water or spices.

‘These kinds of beverages were probably healthier than water a lot of the time, and they also provided needed calories – not only the pleasure of alcohol.

‘[In many cases] herbs were probably added just to hide the bad taste of wine, but some things were also added to improve the taste of good wine.

‘We know the aristocracy drank mulsum, which means wine mixed with honey. Sweetness was something they liked. Very often, they also added pepper – an exotic spice not available to everyone. Sometimes spices were added to show someone’s social status.’

‘Maceration was the best process of getting a stable wine in preindustrial times, and so [styles include] macerated wines from white grapes – amber [and] brown-coloured wines. Something to take into account is that wine colour is a much fuzzier, wider spectrum in antiquity than we’re used to today.

‘From the Roman era we have literary works that provide plenty of evidence regarding wine production and cultivation. Pliny the Elder mentions plenty of vine varieties which were good for winemaking. He also makes a kind of list of the best wines and the worst wines.

‘Also in Greek literature, we find plenty of information about how wines might have tasted. Much [of the original] Greek agronomic literature has been lost. [However], we could add that Greek writer Theophrastus, in the fourth to third centuries BC, described how some vines adapt better to certain soils. You can see here the first traces of what we would call terroir.

‘Learning more about ancient winemaking techniques and things that are [still] used traditionally, like in the Iberian Peninsula and in Caucasus, will definitely add to modern wine production. Clay vessels have become very popular…it’s becoming a new trend to make ancient wines!

‘There are also plenty of techniques that we, modern people, think we invented, like chaptalisation, using dried grapes, maderisation, but we find evidence that the ancient Romans and probably also the Greeks knew them.

‘It’s very interesting to see the cyclical nature of wine history. In other papers, Dimitri discussed ancient agroforestry techniques, which are potentially very suitable to help modern growers in times of climate change.

‘We are thinking about [further experiments and study]. Paulina applied for a European Research Council [ERC] starting grant to recreate dolia, but also to do analysis that will tell us what chemical compounds we can detect in residues of ancient wines.

‘This will tell us more about how they probably tasted. [For example], there is sotolon that gives Sherries a specific taste. We find it also in Georgian wines, but in smaller amounts.

‘We need much more bioarchaeological evidence and it’s very difficult to find dolia in their original state, because a lot of them were cleaned every year. Luckily, we have some examples from Greece, Italy and the near East of dolia still filled with grape solids. That’s extremely interesting.

‘We also need to broaden our perspective. Clay jar winemaking is known in many areas of the world, and in Europe especially. Many of these traditions have survived on a small scale, and so I think there’s potentially a lot more knowledge we could have from all these variations to inform us about ancient winemaking.’

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