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Today when we think about wine, we think of a Cabernet or a Chardonnay. Monks in France used Chardonnay in the 1300s while Cabernet seems to date to the 1700s. It is stated that the Chardonnay is a cross between the Gopuais Blanc (a wine that the Romans brought from Croatia) and a Pinot. But the fact remains that neither a Cabernet nor a Chardonnay were around during the Roman days.
Now we all know that the Romans drank wine with every meal, and these wines were from all over Europe. There is even mention of it in the Bible stating that Jesus changed water into wine when there was a shortage of wine at a wedding in Cana.
So what types of wines were the Romans drinking? The elite were definitely not drinking Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay but we do know that most Roman wine drinkers were well versed in the different types of grapes grown and the regions they came from.
The highest ranked wine during that era was a white wine they called Falernian whose vines were trained to grow up elm trees. They were often made into late harvest wines with alcohol levels of fifteen per cent or higher. First were the primary varieties used for high-end Italian wines. Next were the grapes that produced larger yields for medium quality wine in other areas. Finally, came the very high yield grapes for common table wine.
Romans valued wines that could age and enjoyed wines that were ten to twenty-five years old. The wines were oxidized and or materialised. They were often stored in hot locations during their aging years. So instead of comparing these wines with, say, old Bordeaux, it’s probably more accurate to try Madeira or Marsala to get a sense for the flavours.
They also enjoyed exploring all possible flavours. They often added saltwater to it, a tradition the Greeks enjoyed. They also added in honey sometimes to sweeten it, various herbs to play with the flavours, and even chalk to bring down its acidity.
Wine was thought of as a normal daily drink in Roman society. There was a wine for every situation, for every meal, for every person, from the highest Emperor to the lowest slave. With water being unsafe to drink and milk not considered appropriate for adults, wine was the drink expected at every meal.
When the Roman Empire collapsed this region of the world went into the dark ages and most vineyards fell to low levels of maintenance. So while you may imagine Asterix and Obelix thumping at the Roman soldiers after their intoxicated orgy it is very difficult to say whether we could call their ‘nectar’ wine in the true sense of the word. Some researchers have made guesses as to what wines today are similar to those of the Roman era but we cannot know for sure. Wines could have evolved over the centuries – both the vine and the recipe. Honestly speaking if Rome wasn’t built in a day – neither is the wine.