Historians revive Roman winemaking techniques

23rd August, 2013 by Andy Young

Historians in Italy are trying to replicate the type of wine drunk during the Roman empire, after referring to 2,000-year-old texts.

Vineyards close to Mount Etna in Sicily

Vineyards close to Mount Etna in Sicily

The team, based at the University of Catania in Sicily, has planted a vineyard near Catania, using tools and techniques that were used by the Romans.

The Daily Telegraph reported that the historians are using strips of cane and twists of wood from broom brushes to bind the vines to the poles. Also there will be no mechanisation, pesticides or fertilisers used on the plantation.

The texts used as reference were the poet Virgil’s manual on farming, Georgics, and the tips from a genuine first century AD winemaker, Columella, whose techniques were apparently used well into the 17th century.

Columella apparently referenced 50 varieties although their modern equivalents are not all known. Therefore, the team are planting eight local grape varieties, including Nerello Mascalese, Visparola, Racinedda and Muscatedda and will be using terracotta pots to store the wine.

The pots are lined on the inside with beeswax and buried in the ground up to the neck. They are left open during fermentation, before being sealed shut with either clay or resin.

Researcher Mario Indelicato, who is managing the programme, said: “We will not use fermenting agents, but rely on the fermentation of the grapes themselves, which will make it as hit and miss as it was then – you can call this experimental archaeology.

“We have found that Roman techniques were more or less in use in Sicily up until a few decades ago, showing how advanced the Romans were. I discovered a two-pointed hoe at my family house on Mount Etna recently that was identical to one we found during a Roman excavation.”

The first vines were planted earlier this year and the team hopes to create its first vintage in four years.

Daniele Malfitana, the director of the Institute for Archeological Heritage and Monuments, who is overseeing the project, told the Daily Telegraph: “Step by step, by reading and interpreting the Latin sources, we are learning how the Romans managed their vineyards.

“The scope of the project is twofold – on the one hand to check the feasibility of the Roman techniques, and on the other to understand if this knowledge can be used in modern viticulture.”

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