How wine may have made money for the Roman emperors

Roman archeology Roman wine vat.
Roman archeology Roman wine vat.
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THEY are best known for their victories in battle, conquering vast territories and monumental legacies.

But now a new side to how a Roman emperor may have raised money for the imperial coffers is emerging - wine-making on an industrial scale.

Glanum Roman town.

Glanum Roman town.

A team led by archeologists from the University of Sheffield have discovered the first ever Imperial winery on a working estate, at Vagnari, Italy, in the rolling hills of Puglia, just east of the Apennine mountains.

They uncovered a large wine cellar, where huge ceramic containers would have been buried up to their necks in the ground full of fermenting wine.

The surrounding countryside, which was linked to Rome several days journey away by the Via Appia, was acquired by either the first Emperor Augustus, or his adopted son Tiberius, in the early 1st century AD.

So far the excavation team have discovered part of the “cella vinaria,” a wine fermentation and storage room, and three of the huge vats.

'The Romans are Coming' exhibition at 'Experience Barnsley' museum. Large ceramic amphora ,chemical analysis identify the original contents as wine, AD 50-200.

'The Romans are Coming' exhibition at 'Experience Barnsley' museum. Large ceramic amphora ,chemical analysis identify the original contents as wine, AD 50-200.

Known as dolia defossa, they could hold more than 1,000 litres and were buried to keep the temperature of the wine constant and cool – a necessary measure in a hot climate.

The Emperor owned luxury villas in and around Rome which produced wine for the elite to quaff, but Vagnari was more likely to have produced wine for sale or export, said Professor of Roman Archeology Maureen Carroll.

Prof Carroll, who has been carrying out digs at the site since 2012, said they were hoping to carry out analysis with the help of the University of Bradford on the residues in the vats to discover what kind of wine they may have contained.

Wheat is still grown at Vagnari - as it was when it was part of the Imperial estate - but the archeologists’ work has revealed that vines grew there too in antiquity.

The nearest vineyard today is the Botramagno vineyard around 20kms away which produces a fine white wine.

A team, including students from Sheffield, will return this summer, with the support of the British School at Rome and the Archaeological Superintendency for Puglia, to look for more vats and other wine-making equipment, and maybe even ancient grape pips.

Prof Carroll said: “This year because the winery was such a complete surprise we are going to continue with trenches to see if we can uncover more of the storage vats and if we are lucky other facilities like the wine press or the tank they used to hold the juice until it was put in the vats to age.

“The vats were impossible to move - they were in the ground and stayed there for a long time and were reused year after year.The Roman agricultural writers said it was a good idea round late summer to clean out what was left, give them a good rub and reline them with pitch.”

The archeologists also hope to bottom out the mystery of two skeletons - an adolescent boy and girl found in one of the massive vats.

“Whether we are dealing with victims of a crime who were hastily dumped in the wine vat or some other irregular and illegal disposal of corpses within the settlement, we don’t know. Roman law forbids burials in settlements, so it does suggest something surreptitious,” she said.

Georgians - who use similar buried vats to make wine which they call quevris - are seeking to give the process - said to date back 7,000 years - special protected heritage status through UNESCO. In Georgia the entire wine making process takes place within the quevri from initial fermentation right through to maturation.