A look at the pre-history of modern wine culture & production

Steve McConnell - Vin-X Wine InvestmentFrom the lowest fresher student purchasing Lambrini at 2 for 1 prices, to the highest bon viveur enjoying classic Cheval Blanc ’47, wine is a great Roman Wineleveller; ubiquitous at all levels of our society, present at occasions as hallowed as Holy Communion and as debauched as a Friday night pub crawl. Arguably more than any other consumable product, wine is enjoyed by all and sundry, but where did this universality come from? How is it that wine is so widely consumed not only in this country, but across the entire western world?

As so often with these things, the answer lies with our old friends from the history books, the Ancient Romans. According to A Short History of Wine (Collins, 2000), during the second century BC, Rome was consuming over 180 million litres of wine per year, about a bottle of wine per day per citizen. Wine was considered a staple part of daily existence for the Romans, a quintessential aspect of their diet, enjoyment and religious services. They even had a God for it, Dionysus (or Bacchus, depending who you ask), the Roman god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine (as well as ritual madness and ecstasy, which no doubt came in handy). As the Empire spread geographically, so did Roman wine production: such was the logistical reality of the times that wine production was required at local levels, and the Romans therefore spread their production methods for the first time into what are today the preeminent wine growing regions, including Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley, and large parts of Spain.

What’s really intriguing, however, are the similarities between the economic and cultural aspects of wine production when comparing our current epoch to that of the ancient past. Just as the First Growths of Bordeaux dominate the market today, the Romans had their own first growths, including wines such as Caecuban, Falernian, Caulinum and Trebellicanum, to name just a few. Falernian even had its own slogan: “For a coin you can drink wine. For two, you can drink the best. For four, you can drink Falernian.” Vintages and their reputations were also important. The vintage of 121 BC was particularly famous, being known as the Opimian vintage, named for consul Lucius Opimius. Remarkable for its high levels of production and unusually high quality, the best examples of this vintages were being enjoyed over a century later.

If this shows us anything about wine production and invesetment today, it’s that not much has changed: the fundamental aspects have not really changed all that much. This speaks volumes of wine’s longevity and consistency as an asset, and also of wine’s ability to adapt as cultures, governments, and societies change. More than oil, steel or any other asset, including currency; wine has been around for longer, and will probably be pretty much the same a thousand years from now.