“…the only wine that takes flight when a flame is applied to it.”
Pliny the Elder
The year is 115 AD, with Imperial Rome at the height of its power. The Commissatio is just beginning. Banquets were commonly hosted by an upper class couple in their villa, with several guests invited to partake of delectable feasting and conversation. Let me explain the commissatio as a cheerful game of toasts, after the banquet, which goes on late into the evening with almost everyone …….drunk! There is a whole cast of wines available, from cheap to vile, which would come from Vatican Hill or Marseille. But, a high-class commissatio offered the most excellent wine to be had; Falerno, wine of the gods, produced in northern Campania, the region of Naples. Wine was poured into a krater, and goblets dipped into it to be hastily consumed in one gulp as part of a game. Pliny the Elder and Horace raved about this particular wine as supremo above all others. They lifted Falerno into a legendary status.
As legend goes, Falernus, an old Roman farmer, was visited by Bacchus on his humble farm on his mountain. Falernus prepared him a simple meal, and in gratitude Bacchus filled all the cups at the table with wine. When Falernus awoke the next morning, Bacchus had vanished. He looked over his land and saw that his entire mountain, Mt. Falernus, was covered with vines.
Falerno was grown in three vineyards on the slopes of Mt. Falernus, or Mt. Mossico (on the border between Latium and Campania). Today the area encompasses the Falerno del Massico DOC, where the primary grapes grown are Falanghina, Aglianico and Piedirosso.
Falerno, a predecessor to ice wine, was originally a white wine with a stratospheric alcohol content of 16%. It was produced from late-harvest grapes that had experienced a frost or two and let to dry. The wine was aged for 15-20 years in clay amphorae before drinking. It was amber to dark brown due to oxidation. Varro, in 37 BC, recorded the fact that Falernian wine increased in value as it matured. Pliny the Elder mentioned that Falernian from the famed vintage of 121 BC (vintage of a lifetime), was served to Julius Caesar in 60 BC at a banquet celebrating his conquest of Spain. This particular vintage was celebrated for decades.
Made from the Aglianico (red) grape and/or Greco di Tufo (white) grape, Falernian became a byword for luxury. Recorded as having a strong, fruity flavor, Pliny described Falerno as three types–“the rough, the sweet and the thin.”
Falernian stood the test of time well as a top-ranking Roman wine for at least five centuries. Popular among the emperors and the wealthy, not all of them thought highly of it. Marcus Aurelius, an emperor who usually shrugged at the finer things in life, kept a good perspective about this wine: “After all”, he wrote, even “Falernian wine is just juice from a bunch of grapes.”
What did the earliest Roman wines taste like? Were the highly appraised wines of the first century really worth their legendary status? Will we ever know?
List of suggested wines at bottom
When Vesuvius blew in August of 79 AD, ash covered the entire area of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The thriving seaport towns, once bustling with activity, became graveyards of civilizations frozen in time. There it lay undisturbed for eighteen centuries until it was excavated by Giuseppe Fiorelli, director of excavations from 1860 to 1875. Under twelve feet of solid ash, he discovered the decayed bodies of thirteen men, women, and children huddled together next to a stone wall inside their garden, where they suffocated in the swirling volcanic air.
Orchard of the Fugitives
Today the garden has been named the Orchard of the Fugitives. But instead of death, it is filled with green grass, robust grape vines, and fruit trees. Within the ruins of Pompeii, vineyards are being revived in an attempt to recreate the wines of the ancient Romans according to old Roman methods. In Pompeii’s heyday, vineyards grew in abundance in and around the city. The Villa dei Misteri, the project shared between the Archaeological Superintendence of Pompeii and Campania wine estate Mastroberardino, has been examining ancient frescos, root imprints, Roman authors, and DNA to identify the original grape varieties cultivated in Pompeii.
Is it actually possible to recreate the ancient Roman wines? Do the vines still exist?
Piero Mastroberardino, the winemaker in charge of the renown Mastroberardino winery in Campania, has been replanting vineyards in Pompeii using the same ancient grape varieties, viticulture and winemaking techniques of that period. Since the early 1700’s, the family has been dedicated to Aglianico, Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo, among other varieties brought to Campania by ancient Greeks, producing consistently good quality wine.
Pompeii’s Applied Research Laboratory, founded in 1995, discovered plots of land pockmarked by holes that were evidence of vines and their supporting stakes. A year later these vineyards were replanted. The laboratory discovered that many of the green areas within Pompeii had been planted with grape vines. A dense concentration of them were situated close to the arena. In fact, all five vineyards discovered by the research lab were located near the coliseum.
Ancient Roman wine was very strong, but it was usually diluted with seawater before drinking. It was also used for medicinal purposes. Spices were added, or medicinal herbs to cure sickness. The Romans clearly understood alcohols ability to extract essential elements from herbs.
Pliny the Elder
Ancient Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote extensively about wine. In his book Naturalis historia, he lists the grape varieties that were in common use. These were Greco, Fiano, Aglianico, Piedirosso, Sciascinoso, Coda di Bolpe, Caprettona, and Falanghina. These eight grape varietals are grown in Pompeii’s vineyards. Interestingly, it was the frescos found in Pompeii that partly identified the grape varietal as they each have their own shape. Studying DNA only gives the species, not the variety. Scientists at Pompeii were able to decipher the grape varietals through ancient texts, root imprints, and studies on climatic change as well.
“Campanian wines were considered the wines of the emperors, the wines for events,”states Mastroberardino. “They were the first to introduce the DOC,” he claims, referring to the rules that govern viticulture and labeling practices in Italy today. “On the amphorae of that period, you find the geographic origin of the wine, then the bolla, which is the seal of the producer, then the vintage.”
Today, restaurants and wine distributors carry Mastroberardino’s wines with honor. Their committment to tradition and cultivation of ancient grape varietals, and their ability to blend modern technology with time-tested techniques has placed the Mastroberardino winery as one of the most excellent in Campania.
So, here is your chance to taste the wines of the ancient Romans, made of the same grape varietals that were used over two thousand years ago, though not as strong, thankfully. Cultivated on the same soil around Vesuvius and nourished by the warmth of the sun, these wines are sure to please. Indulge in a glass and let your mind wander among the streets and shops of ancient Pompeii.
All wines may be purchased through wine shops or restaurants.
Recommended Mastroberardino Wines:
2011 Mastroberardino, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Bianco DOC $23–made entirely of an indigenous varietal called Coda di Volpe,it is a soft pale yellow in color with aromas of pears and apricots.
2011 Mastroberardino, Greco di Tufo DOCG $28–One of Italy’s most ancient grape varietals, Grecohas been grown in Campania for thousands of years. It is an elegant, soft-bodied wine with a texture held together by a zesty acidity.
2011 Mastroberardino, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso DOC $23–The red brother to its white sister, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso shares the same legend and origin. An intense Ruby color, aromas of cherry and red berries, and soft flavors of plum, raspberry, and black pepper, this is the result of the Piedirossograpes of this wine.
2010 Mastroberardino, Campania Aglianico IGT $28–Made from another ancient grape of Italy, Aglianicothrives in the volcanic soil and terroir of Campania. Blackberries and violets are the aromas one can find in a glass of this wine.