If Pompeii is known for the plaster casts of the bodies of its last inhabitants, its ruins, its frescoes and because it offers a rare testimony of the Roman urbanism, it is less known for its wine past.
However, it is likely that there were wild vines all over the peninsula since prehistoric times and that the Etruscans and the Greek colonizers favored wine-making as early as 1000 BC.
Preserved in its original state after the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, Pompeii is located in Campania on fertile volcanic soil. It enjoyed a temperate Mediterranean climate and reliable water sources.
Pliny the Elder, who lived near Pompeii in 77 mentions the “hillsides and [the] noble wine of Campania”, while the poet Martial describes the vats dripping with grapes, and the “ridges that Bacchus loved more than the hills of Nysa”.
The Greeks had even given the name of Œnotria, “the land of vines”, to Campania.
A renowned wine region
Of the more than 150 Roman farms discovered in the Vesuvius area, many were devoted to viticulture. Some of the most famous ancient wines came from this area, including a sweet and expensive wine called Falerna.
It was said to catch fire when brought near a flame, suggesting an alcohol content of at least 40%, far higher than the 11% of today’s bottles!
While Falerna was probably a white wine, most ancient wines were red, due to a less laborious production process. A wide variety of red wines were available on the Roman market. Flavored with seawater, resin, spices and herbs such as lavender and thyme, they could also be left to ferment in a smoky room to perfume them.
There is even evidence of counterfeit wines. Archaeologists have identified imitation transport amphorae produced elsewhere and stamped with false seals of Pompeian merchants.
Agriculture in an ancient city
Within the city walls, vineyards nestled behind taverns and inns. Families and tenants grew grapes on a smaller scale for their own consumption of fruit and wine.
Covered with ash and lava following the eruption of Vesuvius, the vines then gradually decomposed, leaving numerous cavities in the rubble. By filling these with plaster, archaeologists have been able to reveal the presence of vineyards on entire blocks.
Excavations have revealed charred grape seeds and even whole grapes, caramelized during the eruption (their high sugar content gives them a polished appearance that can be easily spotted in the ground).
Pompeii also had many gardens. The archaeologist Wilhelmina Jashemski counted at least one per house and up to three or four in some larger villas belonging to the elite. Many of them included vines whose grapes were consumed as fruit or wine, but also served to shade the triclinia, spaces where meals were taken.
If you visit the modern city that surrounds Pompeii today, you will notice that little has changed in 2,000 years.
The “Forum Boarium” vineyard
Opposite the amphitheater is the Forum Boarium, literally “ox market” a misnomer since, contrary to what archaeologists thought, the site was not used for the cattle market. Excavations carried out in the 1960s revealed that it was in fact a vast vineyard.
More than two thousand vines were found, almost perfectly spaced from each other according to the recommendations of the ancient agronomist writers Pliny and Columella. Each plant was attached to a stake. The vineyard also had 58 fruit trees.
Local workers involved in the excavation also noted that the four depressions found around the root cavities were identical to the holes holding water in their own vineyards.
At the back was a small two-room structure housing a lever press and ten dolia, large jars used for fermentation, which were buried to maintain a cool, constant temperature.
There are also numerous triclinia in the vineyard, suggesting that its owner ran a thriving business across from the amphitheater. Spectators came to relax, eat and drink before and after the gladiator fights.
Resurrecting ancient wine
The fact that such large and valuable plots of land within the city walls were devoted to winemaking tells us about the profitable nature of viticulture in Roman communities, but also about the esteem in which it was held.
fruity and floral grapes with light herbal and spicy scents, perhaps related to the Columbina mentioned by Pliny.
In 1996, the Campanian winery Mastroberardino decided to cultivate and process these grapes according to Roman techniques and create Villa dei Misteri, a ruby red wine with a complex nose of vanilla, cinnamon, spices and cherry.
It can be aged for thirty years or more, like the sixty-year-old Falerna that Julius Caesar drank at a banquet to celebrate his conquests in 60 B.C.