History of Wine part 3 – Rome and Pliny, The Early Wine Connoisseur
Although the Greeks did differentiate between wines geographically – wine from Lesbos was of a certain quality, for example – true connoisseurship apparently had to await the Romans. Here, my hero is Pliny the Elder, who is probably remembered primarily for being killed in 79 AD by the eruption of Vesuvius. But in his own day, for centuries thereafter, and amongst those today who are interested in the ingathering of knowledge, Pliny was famous above all for his Naturalis Historia, in whose thirty-seven books he surveys all of nature. Book XIV is devoted to the vine and wine. He describes the various ways of cultivating the vine, and follows this with pages on the many varieties of grapes and their uses. He talks about famous wines of former times, the oldest of which was the wine of Maronea, grown in the seaboard parts of Thrace, and used by Odysseus against Polyphemus. (Remember that Odysseus got the one-eyed Polyphenus drunk on the wine, which was exceedingly strong, and then he and his sailors put the eye out with a burning stake, thereby enabling them to escape to their ship.)
Pliny the Elder
He also celebrates a more recent vintage, that of Opimius, called such because it was the year of the consulship of Lucius Opimius; this was in 121 BC, a year as memorable for the assassination of Gaius Gracchus ‘for stirring up the common people with seditions’, or proposals for reform. That year the weather was so fine and bright – they called it ‘the boiling of the grape’ – that wines from that vintage, according to Pliny, still survived nearly two hundred years later. He did, however, add that they had ‘now been reduced to the consistency of honey with a rough flavour, for such in fact is the nature of wines in their old age’. He discusses the unbelievable sums such wines attracted, stupidly, he clearly felt, and here one might think of the few bottles of wine from the cellar of Thomas Jefferson which still exist, one of which, a bottle of Château Lafite 1787, fetched £105,000 at auction in 1985.
Many are familiar with the Bordeaux classification of 1855, when the red wines of Bordeaux were classified as Premier, Deuxième, Troisième, Quatrième and Cinquième crus. Pliny pre-dated this classification technique by nearly two thousand years, when he listed Italian wines in order of merit, for, he says, ‘who can doubt … that some kinds of wine are more agreeable than others, or who does not know that one of two wines from the same vat can be superior to the other, surpassing its relation either owing to its cask or from some accidental circumstance?’ He then classifies Italian wines into first-, second, third, and fourth-class wines, other wines, and foreign wines. He does not, however, follow fashion blindly. Many commentators have exalted Falernian wine, and, indeed, he remarks that ‘no other wine has a higher rank at the present day’. Pliny, however, puts it into the second class: the reason, he says, is that ‘the reputation of this district also is passing out of vogue through the fault of paying more attention to quantity than to quality.’ Modern parallels leap to mind.
But then, thanks to the barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome, we lost wine connoisseurship almost entirely, and in this case, if no other, the next thousand years or so were truly the Dark Ages. In part, this was the result of the neglect or destruction of farms and vineyards by the invaders, who preferred barley- or grain-based alcoholic drinks to those made from grapes. Numerous accounts in Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks tell of this destruction and pillage. Yet the greatest damage done by these invaders was arguably not the destruction of the vineyards and wineries, but the subsequent collapse of the economic and social structure of the western Empire. The division of Italy, Gaul and Iberia into a number of small warring kingdoms effectively undermined the long-distance wine trade, whilst the decline of the population of cities, such as Rome itself, dramatically curtailed the demand for such wines. Furthermore, there were reasons in the transport of the wine itself which mostly killed any chance of drinking decent wine. The Romans had used airtight amphorae for both storage and shipping, closed with cork stoppers, but this knowledge of the use of cork was lost during the mediaeval period. Instead, amphorae gradually gave way to wineskins and barrels and the cork was replaced by beeswax and oil-soaked rags – only in the seventeenth century did cork make a re-appearance.