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Falernian Wine: The Most Important Wine in Ancient Rome

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The Roman Empire was steeped in the symbiotic embrace of Bacchus. Wine held a central place in the daily life of Romans, playing a vital role in their festivities, meals, and religious rituals.

Economically, the production and trade of wine significantly contributed to the Roman economy, creating jobs and generating substantial tax revenues for the state. In a sea of competing vineyards and vested economic interests, one wine rose above all else: Falernian wine. 

Cultural Importance of Wine

Wine was closely tied to Roman culture and society, symbolizing conviviality, refinement, and social status. Romans drank wine on various occasions, including lavish banquets, religious celebrations, and simple family meals. The god Bacchus ( Dionysos among the Greeks) was venerated as the god of wine and festivities, further emphasizing the importance of wine in Roman culture.

The economic ballet unfolded amid flourishing vineyards and a labyrinthine network of trade routes, from the sun-kissed landscapes of Italy, particularly the poetic realms of Campania and Latium, to the verdant expanses of Gaul, the sun-drenched vineyards of Spain, and the enchanting landscapes of North Africa. 

We know that the vine originated near the Zagros mountains in Iran. From there, the vine was progressively adopted in Lebanon before taking root in Egypt, where it became the beverage of choice of powerful pharaohs.

The Cananeans and Carthaginians, who inhabited the Levant, actively traded their wines to all corners of the Mediterranean Sea, bringing the honored beverage first to Crete and later on, to Greece and Italy. 

By the dawn of the Roman empire, the vine was already firmed and implanted across the Italic peninsula. Yet, in the epoch of 79 AD, the fiery storm of Vesuvius, in its cataclysmic waltz, laid waste to the very vines that orchestrated this prosperity, leaving behind a spectral silence that reverberated even in the distant vineyards of Gaul.

In response to the haunting cadence of scarcity, Emperor Domitian, a conductor of imperial edicts, orchestrated a somber requiem for excess. In the year 92 AD, the edict echoed through the provinces, a draconian decree to prune the burgeoning vineyards, severing the tendrils of viticultural excess that threatened to entwine the prosperity of Rome.

Falernian wine

wine in ancient rome
A Roman banquet, as depicted in Pompeii.Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution — Author:WolfgangRieger – Marisa Ranieri Panetta (ed.): Pompeji. Geschichte, Kunst und Leben in der versunkenen Stadt. Belser, Stuttgart 2005. Public Domain

Falerian wine was one of the most renowned wines of the Roman Empire, originating from the Falerian region in present-day Southern Italy. This sweet white wine was highly prized for its delicate flavor and light color.

Produced from late-harvested grapes, the wine acquired a certain sweetness and sugar richness. According to the author Pliny the Elder, Falerian wine was one of about 400 grape varieties known in the first century AD.

The earliest references to this fine wine date back to around 160 BCE, mentioned by Petrarch, and the tradition, one of the oldest continuous viticultural cultures in the world, persisted until its sudden abandonment in the 19th century.

Falerian wine was popular among the Roman elite, including emperors such as Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius. Its rarity and prestige made it a symbol of luxury and status. Bottles of Falerian wine were often exchanged as diplomatic gifts or offered as a sign of imperial favor.

Known for its taste and aging potential, Falerian wine was also favored by the personal physician of Marcus Aurelius, who considered it a medicinal and nourishing substance during the Germanic campaigns.

Several Roman emperors were known to appreciate Falerian wine, making it an essential element of their feasts and gastronomic culture. They especially enjoyed the richness and sweetness of Falerian wine, as well as its aging potential, making it a prestigious choice for special occasions.

The wines of Falerne, like the great Roman vintages, were said to be made from white grapes and had a taste reminiscent of Madeira wine. The secret to its success : grapes were harvested late in the season, resulting in a higher alcohol content that outlasted most of the wines of the time, reaching up to 16 % of alcohol per volume. 

Galen explained in his works that some wines were heated from the beginning to accelerate aging, ensuring preservation. It was also common to coat amphorae with pine resin directly or simply flavor the wine to sterilize it. Historians have documented over sixty different plants used by the Romans to spice their wine because the Romans liked their rosé robust and piquant.

According to Galen, the wines of Alba in Latium reached their peak after fifteen years. For Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), average Falerian wine (from Campania) began its maturity around fifteen years; it was only in the years that followed that it proved beneficial to health, lying between youth and old age.

Could Roman wines really be kept as long as today’s wines, given the radical evolution of winemaking techniques? Well, yes, in rare cases, amphorae could be kept for 200 years. Among aristocrats and the powerful, it was common to blend old wine with young wine.

What is left of Falernian wine?

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the winemaking tradition survived and evolved over centuries, influencing European wine cultures and production methods.

However, the taste for strong Falernian wine, along with the tradecraft behind it, were progressively lost, with the last “true” Falernian wines disappearing by the end of the 19th century.

Today, if the Roman ruins bear witness to the inevitability of collapse, several vineyards have taken on the challenge of recreating the ancient brand, although with a modern twist.

Falerno del Massico in northern Campania is one such example. If you venture along Mount Falernus on your next trip to Italy, why not try a local Campana wine for yourself and imagine yourself thrown back at the height of Roman glory? 

To be sure, it is unlikely we will ever taste the number one favorite of Roman emperors given that the grape variety no longer exists. That said, efforts have been made to recreate a close match from ancient techniques. 

Banner Image: Matthieu Joannon on Unsplash

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Pratyush Sogani

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