Ancient Romans liked their wine. In Pompeii, their resort near Naples, there were more than 100 wine bars and 20 wine shops in a city of 20,000. We know this because a volcanic eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius suddenly buried the city under nine feet of ash in A.D. 79. Many Pompeians were buried alive at their tables, and thousands of large wine jugs, or amphorae, were preserved in place.
Murals of wine drinkers at banquets were also preserved, showing the colors of Roman wines to be about like today, from light whites to deep reds. The first real Roman wine-and-food writer was Pliny the Elder around 200 years before Caesar and Cato tackled the subject. Horace even made a careful study of which wines did not give hangovers.
Julius Caesar’s favorite wines were Greek, but his Roman favorite, called Mamertine, is still made today. It is now a strong, dry white usually of no special quality. The modern wine that most resembles Roman wines is probably Lacryma Christi (tears of Christ), which is still made in quantity on volcanic soil, on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, giving it the same unusual taste Romans often wrote about. It comes in both red and white.
Romans drank their wines according to the seasons; whites were cooled by adding stored snow in summer, and heated with hot pokers in winter. Romans liked to drink wines while strolling around the city snacking rather than seated, but insisted you not drink on an empty stomach, just like dieticians today. The best wines had leather identification tags around their necks, indicating the vineyard and year of harvest.
Roman wine bars stored their wine in large jars buried up to their necks in the ground, cooling and preserving them much like a cellar. Beer was scorned by the Romans, who said it was only good enough for people living north of the Alps (like the French). A wine server, or cellarius, filtered their wines before serving.
Everywhere Romans went, from Israel and Syria to Germany and France, they planted grapevines and made wine. Herod, the Roman King of Judea, had at least 10 different kinds of wines at his place. To keep wine from tasting spoiled, Romans made many concoctions, using raisins to sweeten wines, a classic preservative. They even added seawater, like the Greeks, to “preserve” wine by salting it. They added honey to vinegar tastes.
Eventually they developed a taste for vinegary wine, and a common refresher for soldiers was a wine-vinegar sponge carried on the march to moisten their lips periodically. Some scholars say it was such “vinegar” that was given to Jesus on Calvary, as a kindness rather than cruelty.
For deep-colored red somewhat like the Romans made, try Taurasi from Mastroberardino. It is rich tasting and easy to find most anywhere. For lighter whites, try Robert Mandavi’s moscato d’oro, also a Roman favorite. For a Roman “smoked” wine, substitute a Madeira like Malmsey or Verdelho. For something Roman but still modern tasting, try a fine Chateau Ausone from Bordeaux named for the native Bordeaux professor Ausonius, tutor of the Emperor Gratian. It is certainly as good as anything the Romans drank, probably better.
John Hailman of Oxford will be joining HottyToddy.com as a regular contributor on two subjects: Law and Wine. Now retired from both his “day job” as a federal prosecutor in Oxford after 33 years and his “night job” of 25 years as a nationally syndicated daily columnist in more than 100 daily papers on wine, food and travel for Gannett News Service and the Washington Post, Hailman will cover both topics under the titles of The Legal Eagle and Wine Tips of the Week. HottyToddy.com will also run periodic excerpts from Hailman’s upcoming book of humorous legal stories: From Midnight to Guntown: True Crime Stories From A Federal Prosecutor in Mississippi. Hailman now teaches Federal Trial Practice and Law and Literature at Ole Miss.