BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Tasting Roman Wine from the Time of Jesus

Just how good was wine in the Roman world?

Grapes, ready for the harvest. <em> Courtesy Photo Companion to the Bible, Genesis. </em>

Grapes, ready for the harvest. Courtesy Photo Companion to the Bible, Genesis.

Wine has been synonymous with the Mediterranean world since before the time of Jesus, 2,000 years ago. Indeed, wine is attested in practically any ancient text, from Pliny to the Bible. The New Testament, for instance, mentions wine more than two dozen times, from the wedding at Cana to the last supper, and the Hebrew Bible mentions it another 200 times. Wine from the time of Jesus, however, would have been quite different from what you find in the supermarket today. There is surprisingly much we do not know about the Roman precursor to our modern cabernets, pinots, and chardonnays, even simply what it tasted like.


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Wine: Yesterday and Today

Despite countless written descriptions of ancient wines, the evolution of winemaking techniques and styles has left the flavor of ancient wines a mystery, with some historians claiming it was a far inferior beverage to the wines of today. However, a new study published in the journal Antiquity suggests that is far from the truth and that Roman wines were every bit as complex and varied as their modern equivalents. In uncovering the flavor of ancient Roman wines, a team of researchers turned to an interesting source, modern Georgian wines.

The Baltic country of Georgia is some 1,500 miles away from Rome, but its wine industry shares some important similarities with that of the ancient Roman world, specifically the use of clay vessels for fermenting and aging wine. Although modern wine is typically fermented in wood or metal barrels, the Romans relied on clay dolia or pithoi vessels. According to the team, the use of clay vessels played a significant role in flavoring the wine, much like oak barrels lend vanilla flavoring to wine today.

Although it has commonly been assumed that these large pithoi were generic and mass-produced, in examining more recent studies of ancient Roman dolia, the team realized that far from being haphazard, the dolia were highly specialized, not only in size and shape but also in material, with certain minerals being more prized than others for the flavors they imparted to the wine. Similarly, winemaking in Georgia—which follows ancient winemaking traditions that may have influenced more recent winemaking techniques—uses highly specific minerals in the construction of their clay vessels, allowing them to produce very specific flavors.

Roman wine dolia

Roman wine dolia excavated in situ near Naples, Italy. Courtesy Carla Brain, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Another important feature of both Roman and Georgian winemaking was vessel size and shape, which creates heat currents inside the jar, mixing the wine and leveling out the temperature. Both also cover their jars in a secondary material, typically beeswax or pitch. This limits the clay’s porosity nature of the clay and keeps the wine from over oxidizing and becoming vinegar. Instead, it allows for a controlled oxidation that creates nutty, grassy, and fruity flavors. Burying wine jars in the soil would have also stabilized the temperature of the fermentation in a way that adds nutty and caramel flavors.

Many other Roman-era techniques would have separated Roman wine in the time of Jesus from what we drink today, including natural fermentation. Additionally, while Roman wine could come in a wide range of colors, the Roman world lacked the modern distinction between red and white wines, which are separated based on the maceration of the fruit. Instead, all Roman wines likely went through maceration.

So, what did Roman wine taste like? As Dimitri Van Limbergen, the lead author of the study, told the Telegraph, “Ancient wines made from white grapes and made according to techniques we discuss are bound to have tasted oxidative, with complex aromas of toasted bread, dried fruits (apricots, for example), roasted nuts (walnuts, almonds), green tea, and with a very dry and sappy mouth feeling.”


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Let the Wine Flow

Ancient Wine of Gaza: 1,500-Year-Old Grape Seeds Found in the Negev

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Searching for Cana: Where Jesus Turned Water into Wine

Have We Found Naboth’s Vineyard at Jezreel?

Biblical Archaeology 101: The Ancient Diet of Roman Palestine

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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2 Responses

  1. Charles H. Eypper says:

    “The Baltic country of Georgia” Oops! Wrong word! Georgia is NOT a Baltic country. Maybe “Balkan” was intended.

  2. David Biran says:

    “Baltic country of Georgia”?
    Some basic knowledge of geography would be useful!

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


2 Responses

  1. Charles H. Eypper says:

    “The Baltic country of Georgia” Oops! Wrong word! Georgia is NOT a Baltic country. Maybe “Balkan” was intended.

  2. David Biran says:

    “Baltic country of Georgia”?
    Some basic knowledge of geography would be useful!

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


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