This Is What Ancient Roman Wine Tasted Like

New research shows that clay vessels known as dolia were essential to the drink’s distinctive taste, flavor and texture

Dolia burried underground
Partially buried dolia at a wine cellar in the town of Boscoreale, Italy E. Dodd / Ministero della Cultura / Parco Archaeologico di Pompei

Historians know the ancient Romans drank a lot of wine, with some estimates as high as one liter of diluted wine each day—far more than most of us drink in the 21st century.

But while wine’s central role in Roman culture is well-established, recent research is shedding new light on its flavor, aroma and texture. According to a study published in the journal Antiquity, Roman wine tasted somewhat spicy, smelling of “toasted bread, apples, roasted walnuts and curry.”

“The Romans were able to make much better, more tasty and much more stable wines than is commonly assumed,” lead author Dimitri Van Limbergen, an archaeologist at Ghent University in Belgium, tells Newsweeks Robyn White.

The new study examines clay pots called dolia, which the Romans used to store, ferment and age wines. While historians have long known that dolia were widespread, many questions remained about the details of the production process. The new research shows the vessels were an essential tool in the art of winemaking.

Wine cellar Georgia
A modern wine cellar in Georgia Dimitri Van Limbergen

“Far from being mundane storage vessels, dolia were precisely engineered containers whose composition, size and shape all contributed to the successful production of diverse wines,” write the researchers.

Van Limbergen says dolia were a staple of ancient wine production for hundreds of years. They were also common in everyday Roman homes, with some households owning their own vessels. 

Today, many wines are made in stainless steel tanks and contain added preservatives. Ancient winemaking, however, is more akin to a modern Georgian method, according to the researchers: Dolia are similar to qvevri, large clay vessels that Georgians bury underground to ferment wine.

“On a trip to Georgia in 2019, I realized the major potential of these vessels as modern exemplars to elucidate Roman winemaking practices,” Van Limbergen tells Artnet’s Richard Whiddington. “I started investigating clay jar winemaking and the effects of techniques and vessel properties on wine sensory profiles and comparing them with what we know from ancient sources.”

Old qvevri
An earthenware vessel from the sixth millennium B.C.E. decorated with grape motifs Dimitri Van Limbergen / Georgian National Museum

Van Limbergen and co-author Paulina Komar, an archaeologist at the University of Warsaw, say the Romans buried dolia up to their mouths and sealed them with lids to regulate temperature, humidity and pH during fermentation. The clay vessels were porous and coated with pitch on the inside (qvevri are coated with beeswax), allowing for a carefully controlled oxidation process.  

Dolia also have narrow bases, which allow solids from the grapes to sink to the bottom of the jar and separate from the wine, resulting in an orange color. But comparing this color to modern-day wines is tricky, as Roman wines weren’t separated into reds and whites. As Van Limbergen tells Newsweek, “They belonged to a wide spectrum of colors ranging from white and yellow to goldish, amber, brown and then red and black, all based on grapes macerated on the skin.”

The conditions created by burying the vessels also influence the wine’s unique characteristics: Inside the vessels, flor yeasts develop on the wine’s surface, which create chemical compounds like sotolon. These, in turn, result in a distinctive flavor and aroma.

“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 (lots of tannins in the wines from the skins of the grapes),” Van Limbergen tells the Telegraph’s Joe Pinkstone.

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