What have the Romans done for us?

Well, there's wine, of course. But what traces are there in our modern-day bottles of their ancient heritage? Nina Caplan goes on the trail in her new book, The Wandering Vine

A knowing look from Bacchus(Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples) A knowing look from Bacchus(Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples)

Bacchus is a name familiar to most people: the Roman god of wine has long outlasted his worshippers. Still, few of us realise how much we owe him, or perhaps we would still, as those ancient drinkers did, dash a few drops from our cup to the ground as an offering – an anticipatory thank you for our pleasure.

The Romans didn't invent wine, but they certainly drank a lot of it, and their grapes, like their laws and their language, accompanied them throughout the Empire they could never seem to refrain from expanding.

The taste of home was an antidote to homesickness; plus nothing could be more thirst-inducing than a thousand-mile walk with a battle at the end of it, so the soldiers carried clay amphorae containing fuel for the fight and a reminder of what they were fighting for. You could say that all those barbarians were conquered by the Empire's wines as much as by its citizens, and the first of which at least was an enthusiastic surrender.

Spain already had wine when the Romans became masters at the beginning of the 2nd century BC, but it wasn't very good, and most of it didn't get much better – 'ideal for getting the porter of your mistress drunk,' sniffed the poet Ovid – but if quality stagnated, quantity did not. Spanish amphorae travelled all over the Empire*, and the soldiers who received land as severance pay planted vines – in Rioja, in Catalonia, and in Andalusia, where the precursor of modern sherry won praise from writers such as Martial (who was, not coincidentally, Spanish himself).

It's possible that the Romans took vines from Rioja to plant in conquered Bordeaux, but the Gauls needed no invasion to develop a taste for the Empire's beverage. They already loved it so much that, as one contemporary writer noted, they were prepared to pay Italian merchants the astronomical price of a slave for an amphora, 'thus exchanging the cupbearer for the cup'. Defeat brought liquid compensation; Julius Caesar may not have been much of a drinker himself (he believed that wine weakened the fighting spirit, although he was far too pragmatic to inflict that belief on his fighters) but his victories led to planting by both old soldiers and new-minted subjects. Languedoc and the Loire, Burgundy and Bordeaux, even Champagne all became wine regions under Roman rule; as for the Rhône, the conquerors seem to have planted vines there as enthusiastically as they embedded victory arches; and still, today, the land is sown with both.

A convivial Roman mosaic at Villa del Tellaro, near Noto in Sicily A convivial Roman mosaic at Villa del Tellaro, near Noto in Sicily

We have very little idea how ancient wine tasted, but it seems a fair guess we wouldn't have liked it. The greatest ancient wine documented was Falernian, from Monte Massico in Campania, and the vintage without equal was apparently 121BC – so much so that it was still being drunk 200 years later, which doesn't whet the appetite. Pliny the Elder praised the 'pitchy' taste of Rhône wines – not an adjective most modern wine writers would consider a compliment – and all wine, whatever its provenance, was diluted: only barbarians took their wine straight. The inclusion of herbs and honey was common, and chalk dust was not unknown; wine intended for slaves might be made to go further by the addition of seawater. But then, these were people who had never tasted tomatoes, chillies or processed sugar, nor tried a drop of wine that wasn't oxidised. We have plenty to learn from them: they harvested according to the moon's cycle just as biodynamic practitioners do now, and fermenting in amphorae hasn't been this popular for nearly 2,000 years. Still, their palates must have been as different from ours as their attitude to slavery.

We cannot truly reach them – but we can follow them, via our shared appreciation of wine. Let's start in Lazio, near Rome, with Roma Malvasia Puntinata 2016, from Principe Pallavicini (refi> N-IT23791, £9.50), who are helping to revive an area where quality suffered for centuries from the imperative to provide nearby Rome with as much wine as possible, and go south to Campania, via The Society's Falanghina, made by the La Guardiense co-operative (ref N-IT24111, £8.75). There is no proven link between falanghina and Falernian, despite their phonetic and geographical closeness, but that needn't impede a wine lover wishing to inhale 'breath of balm from phials of yesterday,' in Martial's wonderful phrase. (He was writing about kisses, but then, he had never tasted modern falanghina.)

The vineyards of Cellar Bàrbera Forés, Catalonia The vineyards of Cellar Bàrbera Forés, Catalonia

We'll jump the Mediterranean, from southern Italy to southern Spain, with Osborne Sibarita Oloroso (ref N-SH851, £22 for 50cl), the rich dry sherry made in Andalusia but named for the luxury-loving inhabitants of the ancient Greek city of Sybaris, on Italy's southern tip; then go north to Tarragona (the Romans' Tarraco, and an extraordinary city, the modern building enfolded within the living Roman shell) and turn inland to Montsant, where the Capçanes co-operative makes a garnacha-syrah blend, Lasendal 2015 (ref N-SP12951, £9.50).

We'll cross the border into Gallia Narbonensis, France's first Roman province; the wine options here are seemingly infinite, but since Ollieux- Romanis makes The Society's Corbières, currently from the 2016 vintage (ref N-FC33561 £8.25), let's opt for that. Then up the Rhône to Ampuis and Guigal, who have found various Roman relics in their vineyards – although if you want Guigal wine exclusively from one of their vineyards then Côte-Rôtie La Turque or La Landonne, both 2009, will set you back £425 a bottle (refs N-RH34641 & N-RH34651). Instead, let's opt for their 2016 Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc, an aromatic viognier blend, full of peach and apricot, at a more plebeian-friendly £11.50 (ref N-RH47861).

We'll avoid Bordeaux, despite its many temptations, and head to Meursault, in Burgundy, which takes its name from Roman soldiers' nickname for the little stream they called muris saltus, 'mouse-leap'.

Clos des Grands Charrons 2013 (ref N-BU60311, £39) is classic white Burgundy from a clay-limestone lieu-dit owned by the beautiful (and, unusually for Burgundy, tourist-friendly) Château de Meursault.

Last stop in Gaul is Durocortorum, known to us as Reims, and a wine that has as little in common with those the Romans made here as their Ceretanum would with modern sherry: Champagne. Nobody wanted fizzing wines before bottles were strong enough to withstand that second fermentation; but that, too, was the Romans' loss. Let's drink a bottle of Bollinger's Special Cuvée (ref N-CH40201, £47), since they are the careful owners of a few vines that predate the dreadful phylloxera louse: not Roman-era vines, of course, but perhaps slightly closer than ours. And then, last of all, buoyed by all that wine with its roots in ancient history, let's cross the poet Horace's 'Ocean teeming with monsters, that roars around the distant Britons' and see what, if anything we can find here.

Horace lived before Britain was Roman and never came here, and our knowledge of Roman wine in Britain approximates his of the Channel: it certainly existed, but where it was and what it contained remain a mystery. Plenty of wine was imported, but we have no idea whether the Romans made wine here, however much the winemakers of England would like to believe they did. Let's end our little trip into the past where we began, with bacchus (the white grape, this time, rather than the deity: Camel Valley Bacchus 2016ref N-EN1191, £13.50) and raise a glass in honour of Martial and Horace, and all that we can never know but cannot resist imagining.

*Rome was a Republic until Caesar's assassination in 44BC but I've used Empire throughout for clarity. All photos by William Craig Moyes.

The Wandering Vine

Nina Caplan is an arts, food, drink and travel writer with a regular column in the New Statesman. Her father Harold Caplan was a great champion of The Wine Society and served on the Committee for 11 years. She was the Louis Roederer International Food & Drink Writer of the Year 2016.

Members can buy a copy of Nina's book The Wandering Vine – Wine, the Romans and Me at a special 30% discount on the RRP of £14.99 at Bloomsbury. com (just enter 'VINE' at the checkout).

> More articles by Nina Caplan

Photos by William Craig Moyes
May 2018

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