Wine has been popular with the Romans for over two thousand years. The Roman poet Horace, who witnessed Rome’s transformation from Republic to Empire, spoke of being particularly fond of Rome’s Falernian wines, which come from the slopes of Mt. Falernus on the border of the modern Roman wine region of Lazio and the southern region of Campania; other Roman writers who discuss wine and Roman methods of viticulture include Virgil, Pliny the Elder and Cato.
Wine was also produced by the Etruscans (modern Tuscany) in the north, and by Greek colonists in the south of Italy. Like the Greeks the Romans considered wine a daily necessity, not just for enjoyment but also for religious and medicinal purposes: wine was used for healing depression, gout and snakebites, though the Romans were also aware of its tendency to cause a kind of ‘madness.’ Religious sects in Rome, like the cult of Bacchus and later the Jews and Christians, valued wine for its spiritual qualities.
Through their campaign of conquest and the growth of the Republic and Empire the Romans soon controlled the Mediterranean territories which were the main wine producers. Wine was often flavoured with herbs such as thyme and lavender, and varied considerably in its alcohol content; it was sometimes diluted with warm water, and was a rather different drink to the wine we recognise today.
A nice Chianti
The Roman wine list has expanded considerably in recent years, and most labels will usually tell you where the wine was produced as well as the producer, grape and alcohol content. Rome’s main wine producing region is Lazio, home to an impressive 30+ DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) varieties, many of which can be had at a great local price. The region is best known for its white wines from Castelli Romani and Frascati.
Nearly all menus will offer wines from Italy’s other popular districts. Another region famed for its whites is the nearby Campania: with these wines it tends to be the younger the better. Tuscany is Italy’s most famous producer and their Chianti is its most celebrated wine, made from a combination of four types of grape, dominated by the Sangiovese variety. With Tuscan wines, a cockerel on the label guarantees good quality.
Wines from Veneto in the northeast tend to be more full-bodied as the Amarone grapes are left to breathe in the sun for over two months, increasing the sugar concentration and alcohol content. Sicilian wines are characteristically sweet and produce the renowned Muscato Passito di Pantelleria. Piemonte wines are also sweet and have a very fruity taste; these are produced south of the Alps and are famed for their reds, in particular Barolo and Barbaresco. Piemonte wines from the years 1996-2000 are especially good.
Rome’s enoteche (wine bars) make for a wonderful evening: part bar, part restaurant, they range from smart and upscale to cheap and cheerful. Choose from a wide variety of wines to accompany your meal, and buy a bottle of your favourite to take home. Rome is the perfect place to go on a voyage of wine discovery.