What Did Wine Taste Like Two Thousand Years Ago?

David Suzuki visits the remnants of an old Pompeian bar to quaff back some Roman wine.

People have enjoyed drinking since prehistoric times; it's one of the few pastimes that run throughout the history of Western civilization. So, naturally while filming Pompeii's People, David Suzuki visited the remnants of an old Pompeian bar to quaff back some vino. 

SCENE FROM THE FILM: David visits the local bar to try out some Roman wine.
Importance of Wine to Roman Society

The rise of the Roman Empire was crucial to the wine industry. They refined production by using barrels and cultivation techniques that allowed them to make more for less cost. Romans believed that wine was a daily necessity, so they made it available to slaves, peasants, woman and aristocrats alike. As Pliny, the Elder famously said, "There's truth in wine." At the high point in the empire's history of wine, experts estimate that a bottle of was being consumed each day for every citizen. But they weren't stumbling around in a drunken wine stupor all day; the wine was weak, and the alcohol in it killed the bacteria in the unclean drinking water of the time.

Wine Making in Pompeii

The ancient city of Pompeii was one of the most crucial wine centres of the Roman world. Pompeians had a widespread reputation for their wine-making capacity and worshipped Bacchus, the god of wine, who appears on many frescoes and archaeological fragments. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius had a devastating effect on the industry. After the eruption, the vineyards were destroyed, and the cost rose so rapidly that only the rich could afford it. To meet demand, grain fields near Rome were uprooted to plant grapes, causing a food shortage a decade later. In 92 AD the Roman empire Domitian had to ban new vineyards in Rome and ordered the uprooting of half of the vineyards that already existed so that food could be grown.

"It has become quite a common proverb that in wine there is truth (In Vino Veritas)." - Pliny the elder, 79 AD

Winemaking is now making a return to Pompeii as ancient vineyards are being revived to recreate the wines of the ancient Romans using their methods. Pliny the Elder, a notable Pompeian, author and unofficial wine critic who died during the eruption, wrote extensively on the variety of grapes used in the region. By reading his ancient texts and studying root imprints, scientists have been able to replant the correct plants. They're using Roman tools and fastening the vines with canes and broom, just like the Romans did two thousand years ago.

What Did the Wine Taste Like?

In ancient Rome, immediately after the grapes were harvested, they were stomped on, often by foot. The juice was placed in large terracotta pots (big enough to hold a man) lined with beeswax and buried to the neck in the ground. Often the pots were left open during fermentation before being sealed with clay or resin. The wine produced by these methods was robust and by today's standards, quite unpalatable. 

That's why ancient Romans mixed seawater with the wine before drinking it, making it taste more like a spiked punch (which, of course, reduced public intoxication). Honey was added to sweeten it (called muslum wine), and spices and medicinal herbs were used to bolster its medical qualities. 

At Mas des Tourellses (located in southern France) wine is produced using these ancient methods, and it's what David and Sophie are enjoying at the Bar of Amarantus in Pompeii. Purchase this wine online

Or make an ancient Roman-like wine at home using the following recipes:

Muslum - Ancient Roman Honeyed Wine
uslum - Honey Spiced Wine
ncient Roman Recipes

Available on CBC Gem

Pompeii’s People

Nature of Things