To understand why wine has become such a pivotal part of the Italian culture is to recognize the important role that it has played in the history of Italy, far back to before the country was united. In fact, many of the wines that we drink today have their roots in the wines that were enjoyed by the Ancient Romans, though obviously modern wines have enormous differences from the wines that were consumed so many centuries ago.
Wine back in the Roman era played almost as important a role in culture as it does in the present day, particularly amongst the Roman nobility and the many great writers of the era who spoke about the drink and its impact on the arts and the society of the time. By way of tribute to that great era in Italian history, we have decided to take a look back at some of the great writers of the Roman age to provide a brief explanation of what wine meant to them and, by extension, the people, especially the nobility, of the time.
Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder
Wine always played an important role in the lives of the Roman nobility, perhaps most notably demonstrated in the writings of Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder, who was a Roman statesman who had been raised in an agricultural family.
His classic text, De Agri Cultura – which translates to Concerning the Cultivation of the Land -, is widely considered to be the oldest surviving work of Latin prose, particular in regards to pieces that speak specifically on the subject of wine. In his book, Cato spoke about viticulture and the process of creating wines of the era, going into great detail about the management of vineyards in addition to less savoury information, such calculations regarding the amount of work that a person could do before succumbing to exhaustion.
He established the belief that grapes produce the best wines when exposed to the maximum amount of sunlight, while also stating the importance of allowing grapes to reach full maturity before they are harvested and turned into wine, especially if a winemaker wishes to maintain a strong reputation.
He was also an early advocate of improving hygiene standards, recommending that wine jars be cleaned twice per day, each time with a new broom, and emphasizing the importance of proper sealing to ensure that fermentation goes as planned. His work became the seminal winemaking textbook and was used for many centuries after his own passing.
Perhaps lesser-known, particularly outside of Italy, it the work of Columella. He created the 12-volume De Re Rustica, which was again a detailed text examining Roman agriculture. Of those twelve volumes, two examined the technical aspects of creating wine during the Roman era including information on the best types of soil to use, while another went into more detail about various other aspects of wine.
Many modern aspects of winemaking were inspired by his work, such as planting vines two paces apart in order to give them room enough to grow. He also lauded the wines made using the Balisca and Biturica grapes, which are believed to be the ancestral grapes of what became the Cabernet family that is so popular today.
Not all of his advice was sound though. He advocated the use of lead vessels to aid in the fermentation process, as he believed they allowed sugars to be concentrated in addition to offering superior texture. Of course, we now know that such practices can also lead to lead poisoning. Still, his influence cannot be denied.
Pliny The Elder
Perhaps one of the single most famous historical writers of the Roman era, Pliny the Elder was responsible for the creation of the encyclopaedia Naturalis Historia, which was dedicated to the Emperor Titus and covered a vast array of topics, including those related to winemaking and viticulture.
The work was published following Pliny’s death in the flames of Mount Vesuvius and includes an early description of the concept of terroir that has become so important in the modern winemaking world. Pliny reached the conclusion that the land itself perhaps has more influence on the quality of the wine that the actual vine, which is a concept that still exists in some form today, as the land used to grow vines is an important part of the regulations put forth by the DOC.
His work also described a number of contemporary grapes, many of which no longer exist in the present day but may have been the ancestors of grapes that are used in modern wine. Finally, and perhaps most famously, he is also the originator of the quote “In vino veritas,” which translates to “There is truth in wine.”
The Final Word
As mentioned, many of the great works of this era were created by or dedicated to Roman nobles, even going so far as to include the emperor himself. It is perhaps possible that the Italian wine industry as we know it today would not even exist if not for the inspired work of such writers as those above, or the patronage of the nobility that placed so much importance into the subject of wine, viticulture and the effects that various methods have on the quality of the drink.
As modern wine lovers, it is important that we pay our respects to the Roman culture, whose influence can be seen in so many places all over the world. From much of the art that we love, through to the buildings we live in and the roads that we travel, the Roman empire influenced so much in the modern world.
Few areas is this truer than the Italian wine industry. Many of the practices put forth during this period are still used, or have been adapted to meet modern standards, and many of the truly great Italian wines can find their roots in wines that were created so many centuries ago. So perhaps you may wish to take a moment to reflect on the importance of the Roman empire the next time you sit down with a wonderful glass of Italian wine.