When Vesuvius blew in August 79 AD, the ash covered the entire area of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Thriving port cities, once bustling with activity, became cemeteries of civilizations frozen in time. There it lay untouched for eighteen centuries until it was excavated by Giuseppe Fiorelli, director of excavations from 1860 to 1875. Beneath twelve feet of solid ash, he discovered the decomposing bodies of thirteen men, women, and children huddled against a stone wall. into his garden, where they suffocated in the swirling volcanic air.
Orchard of the Fugitives
Today the garden has been named the Orchard of the Fugitives. But instead of death, it’s filled with green grass, sturdy vines, and fruit trees. Within the ruins of Pompeii, the vineyards are being revived in an attempt to recreate the wines of the ancient Romans according to ancient Roman methods. In Pompeii’s heyday, vineyards grew in abundance in and around the city. The Villa Dei Misteri, the jo, int project between the Archaeological Superintendence of Pompeii and the Campania Mastroberardino wine estate, has been examining ancient frescoes, traces of roots, Roman authors, and DNA to identify the original grape varieties grown in Pompeii.
Is it really possible to recreate ancient Roman wines? Do the vines still exist?
Piero Mastroberardino, the winemaker in charge of the renowned Mastroberardino winery in Campania, has been replanting vineyards in Pompeii using the same ancient grape varieties, viticulture, and winemaking techniques of that period. Since the early 1700s, the family has dedicated itself to Aglianico, Fiano di Avellino, and Greco di Tufo, among other varieties brought to Campania by the ancient Greeks, producing consistently good quality wines.
The Pompeii Applied Research Laboratory, founded in 1995, discovered patches of earth marked by holes that were evidence of vines and their supporting stakes. A year later these vineyards were replanted. The lab found that many of the green areas within Pompeii wine had been planted with vines. A dense concentration of them was situated near the arena. In fact, the five vineyards discovered by the research laboratory were located near the coliseum.
The wine of ancient Rome was very strong, but it was usually diluted with sea water before drinking. It was also used for medicinal purposes. Spices or medicinal herbs were added to cure illnesses. The Romans clearly understood the ability of alcohol to extract essential elements from herbs.
Pliny the Elder
The ancient Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote extensively about wine. In his book Naturalis Historia, he lists the grape varieties that were in common use. These were Greco, Fiano, Aglianico, Piedirosso, Sciascinoso, Coda di Bolpe, Caprettona, and Falanghina. These eight grape varieties are grown in the vineyards Pompeii wine history. Interestingly, it was the frescoes found in Pompeii that partly identified the grape variety, since each one has its own shape. Studying DNA only gives the species, not the variety. Pompeii scientists were able to decipher grape varieties through ancient texts, traces of roots, and also studies on climate change.
Today, restaurants and wine distributors carry Mastroberardino wines with honor. Its commitment to tradition and the cultivation of ancestral grape varietals, and its ability to combine modern technology with time-tested techniques, have placed the Mastroberardino winery as one of the most excellent in Campania.
Then this is your chance to taste the wines of the ancient Romans, made from the same grape varieties that were used over two thousand years ago, though not as strong, thankfully. Grown in the same soil around Vesuvius and nurtured by the warmth of the sun, these wines are sure to please. Sip a drink and let your mind wander among the streets and shops of ancient Pompeii.