“Roman Wine Making, from the Villas and Vines of Southern Gaul” by Sarah McCully ’16

First and foremost, the production of wine in Roman and Gaulish villas began with planting the grape vines and taking care to cultivate them properly.   Cato outlines several varietals of the plant, divided into two primary groups.  Small aminnians were small grapes that grew well in soil exposed to the sun.  Large aminnians, like murgentian, apician, and lucariuan, were better suited to heavy soils and fog (Cato 21).  Presumably, these grape varietals would have been chosen to best complement the climate and soil conditions of the individual villa.  Many Romans also believed that sloped ground drained more evenly, allowing water to reach roots planted on them; vineyards in particular were thought to do will on a slope (Mastroberardino 200: 58), meaning that villas may well have planted their acreages of vines on such topography wherever possible.  The cultivation of grape vines was also seasonal, labor-intensive work; harvesting times did vary depending on the plant and environment where it grew (Varro 163), but in southern France harvesting was typically done in the mid to late autumn.

There is more debate concerning the proportions and methods of planting vines.  In larger vineyards in particular, plough animals like oxen or donkeys were commonly used to help plant vines and then harvest their fruits.  Naturally, in order for animal drawn carts to be maneuvered through these crops, vines needed to be planted far enough apart for them to pass.  Vines were planted an average of five to seven feet apart (Mastroberardino 2000: 58).  In order for vines to be supported as they grew, techniques to train them were often used; vitis compluviata, whereby four vertical poles surrounded vines to train them upward, often maximized yields and were a popular choice for large estates (Mastroberardino 2000: 58).

Grape vines were highly sensitive to weather changes, (Purcell 1985: 2), so this harvesting time must have been precise, year after year.  As a result, scholars have proposed a system of labor which took advantage of that seasonal harvest to save on wages.  Instead of employing full time workers, many vineyards may have maximized profits by only hiring seasonal and migrant help during the autumnal months, when work was actually required for viticulture (Mastroberardino 2000: 62).

After grapes were harvested, they were collected and brought in to preparation areas for treading, pressing, and fermentation processes.  Before anything else, the harvested grapes were sorted for quality, and those that met with the overseer’s standards were brought in to the pars rustica of the villa to the treading floor, or vinarius (Curtis 2001: 376).   Here, workers trod with their bare feet on grapes in order to crush out most of their juice.  Treading vats were attached to sunken channels, into which the trodden juice would flow for later collection.  Following this first process, the remaining skins and grapes were brought to the torcularium for further pressing (Curtis 2001: 376).  This contraption had four major components: the ara was the stone circle in the center of the press, and the orbis was the basket filled with grape skins placed on top.

On either side of these pieces were two vertical posts, called the arbor.  These posts held the prelum, a horizontal lever that ultimately crushed the orbis and the remaining grapes inside (Curtis 2001: 377).  The prelum was slowly lowered on each side of the central ara until its weight had completely pressed the remaining juice out of the skins left over from treading.  These presses also were equipped with channels allowing for the pressed juice to run away from the mechanism and into a collection area

It is important to note here that these presses were extremely expensive; because the vast majority of grape juice was collected through the initial treading method, presses were not absolutely necessary for a vineyard to produce wine (Rossiter 1981: 348).   Many smaller and less wealthy villas simply bypassed this step.

At this stage, a number of additives might have been mixed in with the juice for varied effect.  Common ingredients included chalk, marble dust, pine resin, and myrrh, which added varying degrees of texture, thickness, and luxury which might distinguish a wine.  After the pressing process was complete, the collected juice from both stages was moved into dolia, which were large sunken jars where the wine was left to ferment (Curtis 2001: 378).  These jars were cleaned and coated with pitch before each harvest was taken, so that the wine left inside for extended periods of time would remain sanitary and sealed (Curtis 2001: 376).

Most of these techniques have been pieced back together from a combination of literary evidence outlining the process and archaeological results revealing the mechanics and storage spaces.  Primary written sources tend to come from the homes and villas of the Italian peninsula, meaning that wine-making methods from this period retain an Italian bias. It is unlikely that provincial villas had revolutionarily different techniques for vinicultural harvesting and production, and our found torcularium certainly confirms the pressing process, but one should always allow for flexibility in terms of local customs and procedure.


Works Cited

Cato, M. (1967). On Agriculture. In H. Hooper, & H. Ash, Cato & Varro: De re rustica (pp. 3-29, 33-39, 71-73, 115-119, 125, 141-143). Cambridge, MA.

Curtis, R. I. (2001). Ancient Food Technology. Boston : Brill .

Mastroberardino, P. (2000). Vines and Wines in Ancient Pompeii: an Ancient Technology Revivified. In J. Renn, & G. Castagnetti, Homo Faber: Studies on Nature, Technology, and Science at the Time of Pompeii (pp. 57-62). Munich: L’erma di Bretschneider .

Rossiter, J. (1981). Wine and Oil Processing at Roman Farms in Italy. Phoenix, 345-361.

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