This week we continue our tour of wines from the ancient world.
We’ll finish up with the Greeks (and a very strange drinking cup designed by Pythagoras), then go to the Romans, who changed wine forever with the practice of aging (and may have discovered the cure to hangovers).
We know wines can change dramatically between different vintage years… but what about within the same year? This week Julien addresses the issue of “bottle variation”...
Did the Romans Discover a Cure for Hangovers? (Continued)
The Pythagoras Cup
At some point between the 5th and 4th centuries before Christ, the Greek Pythagoras took a break from sitting in a cave obsessing over triangles and tried to improve the lives of his fellow man.
The workers on the island of Samos were drinking too much, so Pythagoras devised a cup that could not be overfilled.
The Pythagorean Cup is an interesting historical oddity. Unlike conventional cups, it features a small central column which is fixed over a hollowed cup stem, which in turn leads to a small hole at the cup’s base.
The siphon effect drains the Pythagoras cup when filled too high
When the cup is filled to a higher point, the liquid under its own weight moves fully up to the top of the internal column before siphoning out through the stem and the base hole, with this continuing until the cup is fully drained. Trying to overfill such a glass results only in lost wine and stained clothing.
(A Roman “tantalus bowl”, working on a similar principle, was excavated in Croatia in 2011 and according to the British Museum’s Roman Curator is “the earliest example of a physical practical joke.”)
Ancient Winemaking Techniques
In Ancient Greece, wines were often mixed with other aromatic ingredients such as resin, perfume, herbs and spices. The most coveted wines were sweeter, made from fully ripened grapes, dried in the sun. The less well-to-do of Greek society drank a different style of wine made from earlier-harvested, lower-quality grapes, which had the unfortunate habit of oxidizing within a short space of time.
Modern winemaking techniques — strongly influenced by the Ancient Greeks — include the matching of particular soils to grape varieties, controlling yields in order to concentrate flavors and aromas, and using cuttings from existing vines for new vineyard plantings, as well as training vines in rows using stakes.
The Romans inherited most of their wine culture from the Greeks. At the high-point of wine consumption, it is estimated that each citizen was consuming on average a bottle a day, or 180 million liters in total annually. Wine was also used as a medicine and often given to sick cattle.
As in ancient Greece, the Romans drank diluted wine, often mixed with herbs, spices and honey as well as less agreeable substances like seawater and lead acetate (which happens to have a sweet taste, and may possibly have been a factor in the death of Pope Clement II in 1047).
The Best Roman Wines
Among the classified Roman wines, particularly prized types included Falernian, a strong white wine made on the slopes of Mount Falernus from mainly late-harvested aglianico grapes which were then aged for a decade or more in clay amphorae.
In one Pompeii drinking establishment a price list inscribed on the wall states “For one you can drink wine, for two you can drink the best, for four you can drink Falernian.”
The most famous Falernian wine dates back to 121 BC and is known as the “opimian” vintage after the local Consul Lucius Opimius. They say it kept for one hundred years. The famous Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder describes opimian as having a high alcoholic potency: “It is the only wine that takes light when a flame is applied to it”.
Pliny also happens to be one of the first Roman writers to suggest hangover cures, including tasty-sounding delights such as raw owl’s eggs or fried canary. (Let us know if you try it!)
Another especially prized wine was Caecuban, often drunk at celebrations commemorating the defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra. Other first-growth wines including Alban, Rhaeticum and Hadrianum were highly valuable, conferring social status upon whomever could afford to serve them.
Wine invariably conferred more status than lowly beer – attitudes of the elite are nicely summed-up by Julian, emperor from 361-363 AD, who declared that wine “smells like nectar” whereas beer “smells like goat”. Snobbery reached its zenith with the appearance in Roman society of the predecessors of modern-day sommeliers, called haustores. These experts classified wine based on quality as red (vinum atrum), white (vinum candidum) and rosé (vinum sosatum).
While the Romans mostly drank their wines young, they introduced at least one major leap forward in preserving wine for aging. The Greeks had used pine resin for the purpose (they maintain a taste for it to this day with their retsina wines). The Romans, too, used pine resin but also began to experiment with techniques like heating the must and, notably, burning sulfur in their amphorae.
The Romans celebrated a wine festival named Vinalia twice yearly. The prima or urbana festival took place on April 23rd in order to sample the previous year’s wine and ask the Gods for good weather at the next harvest. Venus was the patron of everyday wine, and Jupiter patron of the best wines, including those good enough to be offered to the Gods. The rustica festival took place on August 19th prior to the harvest. Like the earlier festival it had strong connections to Venus, though some considered it to be particularly sacred to Jupiter as master of the weather that would determine the quantity and quality of the upcoming harvest.
Upon the fall of the Roman Empire, the Greco-Roman know-how was in serious danger of being lost. Its savior, the same for most knowledge from the classical world, was the Catholic Church. The Benedictines took over Roman vineyards and planted a few of their own outside their monasteries. Eventually the Benedictines got a little too interested in grapes and a breakaway group formed the Cistercian Order in 1099. The Cistercians soon became famous for having the best vineyards in Europe. Their vineyards remain today (though not the exact vines) from Austria to Champagne to Burgundy to the Duero Valley.
Until next time,
The Wine Explorer