Italians have always been passionate about wine and it has been an integral part of daily life since the time of Ancient Rome. But the appreciation and love for this fermented grape juice stems back before the expansion of the Roman Empire. Given Italy’s strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, its history is coloured by the influences of many different cultures which the Romans subsequently incorporated into their own. The origin of wine dates back to the 4000 B.C. in Mesopotamia, close to modern day Iran. It was introduced in the territory of Italy by the Ancient Greeks, Etruscans and Phoenicians. Their wine producing techniques and culture were passed on to the Romans, and the rest is, well, history.
Antiquity, devastation and rebirth
The Ancient Greeks arrived in the southern regions of Italy in the 8th century B.C., colonising the area and creating Magna Grecia. They were attracted to the region of Campania by its fertile land, introducing the cultivation of grape varietals such as Aglianico, Falanghina and Fiano. The Romans learned from the Greeks and diffused the wine making tradition throughout the empire. The wines made in the area of Pompeii were considered among the best and exportation and trade of wine were quick to follow. Archeological evidence shows not only the existence of vineyards, cantinas, and terracotta amphoras for making and storing wine, but also numerous wine bars with afrescos on the walls illustrating an affluent wine drinking culture.
However, the arrival of phylloxera in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century devastated the territory and transformed the local agricultural for many years to come. Many vineyards that had been destroyed were turned into tabacco cultivations and Campania became one of the top producers in the country.
For much of the 19th century the remaining wine production focused more on highly productive varietals such as Sangiovese, Barbera and international varietals such as Merlot and Chardonnay for the production of table wine. This led to the near extinction of many ancient autochthonous varietals.
Towards the end of the 1970’s/beginning of the 1980’s some local wine producers decided to invest in the re-cultivation of these almost forgotten varietals and there was an important shift from producing low quality wine from well known grapes to producing high quality wine from grapes that respected the unique heritage of the territory. As a result, more people are discovering wines from Campania and international exportation has grown exponentially.
The revival of Ancient Roman wine
One producer in particular, Mastroberardino, has been a pioneer in reviving the historical wines of Campania. He was one of the first to bring back grape varietals such as Falanghina, and the winery continues to invest in projects that give value to the territory.
One such project is “Villa dei Misteri”, where the winery, in collaboration with Pompeii excavations, has actually recreated wine from Ancient Rome. They have planted vineyards in the same area they existed in the city of Pompeii, following the same techniques used at the time and using the same grape varietals: Piedirosso, Aglianico and Sciacinoso.
Through extensive research they discovered that the high density growth techniques in modern day vineyards was in fact already used by the Romans to produce grapes of higher quality. However the wine was very different from what we are used to drinking today and there have been some obvious advancements in technology and hygiene. The Romans fermented the grapes in terracotta pots that were lined with pine resin and buried in the earth. It was not uncommon to find unfortunate intruders, such as dead mice, at the end of the process. The end product was often diluted with sea water and additional flavours such as honey and cinnamon were added to make it more pleasant. Mastroberardino is aware of the fact that this would be a hard sell to modern day consumers and possibly a health risk, therefore the wines are nonetheless fermented using modern day techniques.
No other place on Earth gives such a vivid insight into the daily lives of the Ancient Romans as the city of Pompeii. I visited the archeological site recently and can attest to the fact that reading about it in history books does not compare to the impact of standing on those streets, peering into villas and shops and admiring the immense magnitude of its temples and forums. It is a special piece of history frozen in time, revealing a culture that was as progressive as it is timeless.
To drink the wine from Campania is to participate in its history, to relive what thousands have before you, and a unique opportunity to appreciate the eternal quality of wine.