Saturday, August 24, 2013

Roman Wine

Amphorae arranged for marine transport (Wikimedia Commons)
A few days ago, while reviewing the list of archaeological articles with a connection to food that appears toward the bottom of the left-hand side of this blog, I came across this article about an interesting experiment to attempt to discover what the red wines made by the ancient Romans may really have been like. This experiment is being conducted by the University of Catania in Sicily, and involves the use of grapes planted by the researchers in a vineyard near Catania that will be tended solely with tools and materials available to the ancient Romans.

That, however, is not the most interesting element of the experiment. The most interesting element of the experiment is the handling of the wine's fermentation process. Many modern wines are aged in wooden casks, often made from oak. The Catanian researchers, working from material found in Virgil and other ancient texts, are instead aging their wine in huge terracotta containers, big enough to hold a man, that have been sealed on the inside with beeswax. The containers will be buried in the ground up to their necks, but will not be sealed until the fermentation process is complete--and the grapes will be allowed to ferment naturally without the use of added fermenting agents. 

The idea that a university is attempting to reproduce ancient wines is not surprising in light of Patrick McGovern's work and Dogfish Head Brewery's reconstructions of ancient beers. What is interesting, at least to me, is that the university researchers are not the only winemakers interested in fermenting wine in terracotta containers.   This fine wine blog claims that the use of terracotta containers to ferment wine is being rediscovered by a number modern wine makers; they cite several, including one in Sicily, one in northern Italy, the other in the Republic of Georgia. Apparently the use of terracotta containers results in wines with interesting flavor notes. According to the blog:
Upon opening it is intensely tannic and grippingly mineral. Decant once. Twice. The result, if you’re patient, is a wine that has a purity and fascination that makes you want to roll it appreciatively around your mouth. Deep, rich (but not heavy) and aromatic with layers of dried peach, warm apricot and apple notes on both the nose and mid palate, a splendid Vitovska that is as bone dry as the rocks from which the vines eke out their precarious existence, yet somehow refreshing and curiously sippable with a very long finish that imparts further flavours of hazelnuts and dried fig. And interestingly different to the Vitovska that is fermented in big old barrels.
It is worth remembering that the Romans could have used wooden containers to ferment, age, store and ship their wines, but did not.  Possibly this was because it was cheaper for the Romans to manufacture the large number of clay containers than it would have been for them to make a sufficient number of containers from wood.  The wine blog post suggests, however, that there may also have been positive reasons for using terracotta amphorae for the purpose, namely, that the use of clay containers produces finished wines with more interesting and desirable qualities than wines fermented and aged in wooden barrels.  Oenophiles, take note!

EDIT: The Real Wine Fair, the blog I quoted in this post, posted a follow-up entry consisting of an interview with a wine maker from Pheasant's Tears Winery, discussing his use of terracotta containers among other things. That interview may be found here. It provides much fascinating detail about the modern use of terracotta containers in the winemaking process. One of the most interesting statements in the interview is the claim that the use of terracotta containers (not amphorae) that is discussed is based on historical Georgian practice that predates the Romans.  The process is, however, much the same as the process being followed by the researchers at the University of Catania.

EDIT (8/25/2013) to change the reference to the type of terracotta containers used by the Romans for fermenting wine, since an amphora has a particular shape and I don't know what the Romans called the (probably wider and flatter) type of container) that would have been used for wine fermenting purposes.

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