Research reveals the secrets of Roman winemaking

Pioneering study reveals techniques and characteristics of wine in Ancient Rome


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In a groundbreaking study, researchers Dimitri Van Limbergen of Ghent University and Paulina Komar of the University of Warsaw have made significant strides in understanding the nature of Roman wine, a beverage integral to the fabric of ancient Roman society. The findings, detailed in the journal "Antiquity," provide a vivid portrait of a drink that has remained shrouded in mystery for millennia.

The study focused on the analysis of ancient dolia, large earthenware vessels used by the Romans for wine fermentation, storage, and aging. These containers, often buried in the ground during the fermentation process, played a crucial role in the wine's characteristics. This research marks the first time that the impact of these containers on the wine-making process in Roman times has been thoroughly examined.

Through comparative analysis with modern wine-making practices, the researchers discovered that Roman wine likely had a slightly spicy flavor, with aroma notes resembling toasted bread and nuts. This taste profile was attributed to the unique fermentation process in the dolia, which, unlike modern steel tanks, allowed for a distinct interaction between the wine and its vessel.

The study also reveals that Roman wine classification differed significantly from contemporary standards. The Romans did not strictly categorize wines as red or white. Instead, they recognized a spectrum of colors ranging from white, yellow, and golden to amber, brown, red, and even black, all influenced by the degree of grape skin maceration.

Interestingly, the shape of the dolia's narrow base facilitated the separation of grape solids from the wine, leading to an unusual orange hue in the final product. This is markedly different from most wines we consume today. The fermentation process in dolia, involving controlled pH and temperature by burying the vessels in the ground, allowed for the production of a compound called sotolon, contributing to the wine's spicy flavor.

The study also draws parallels between Roman dolia and Georgian qvevri, clay pots still used for wine-making in Georgia today. This similarity suggests that the Roman process might have been akin to the Georgian tradition, emphasizing the simplicity and ingenuity of ancient wine-making techniques.

Roman wine's texture was also distinctive, with the clay from the vessels imparting a drying sensation in the mouth, a characteristic likely appreciated by Roman palates. This textural difference further highlights the uniqueness of Roman wine compared to modern varieties.

Beyond uncovering the sensory profile of Roman wine, these findings offer new insights into Roman daily life, economy, and social practices. The variation in tastes and aromas achieved by altering the dolia's shape and storage methods reflects the Romans' extensive knowledge and skill in winemaking. This expertise indicates a society where wine production was both a household practice and an industry indicative of economic prosperity.

This research not only reconstructs the taste and aroma of Roman wine but also enriches our understanding of Roman culture and lifestyle. By exploring the nuances of ancient winemaking, scholars are piecing together a more comprehensive picture of how the Romans lived, celebrated, and, importantly, enjoyed their cherished wine.

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