Scientists Reveal Secrets of Ancient Roman Winemaking

The ancient Romans appear to have used local grapes and outsourced tar pitches when making wine, a new study reveals.

A group of Italian and French researchers analyzed three different wine jars, or amphoras, discovered off the coast near the Port of San Felice Circeo in Italy, dating from 1-2 BCE.

The finds were not limited to wine jars, but included other ceramics and artifacts, leading archaeologists to believe the area was likely near a Roman canal.

The study was published in PLOS A.

Making wine in ancient Rome

The researchers combined the latest chemical analysis techniques with various approaches in archaeobotany to bring more light, which would not be possible with traditional analysis techniques, Scientific alert reported.

In order to identify and sort the chemical markers in the jars, the researchers exploited gas chromatography and mass spectrometry and worked on the organic residues left behind in the old finds. The team found evidence of pollen and plant tissues of Vitis flowers, leading scientists to believe that the jars were used to make red and white wine from local sources.

Pine was also among the finds inside the jars, and is thought to be used as a source of tar to waterproof the jars and add flavor to wine. However, the pine could come from other regions such as Calabria or Sicily.

“Using different approaches to unravel the content and nature of the Roman amphorae coating layer, we have taken the conclusion further in understanding ancient practices than it would have been with a single approach,” said Researchers.

Pine tar as a waterproofing agent

This isn’t the first time the ancient Romans developed a specific process that still retains applications in the modern world today. Having used pine tar as a water-repellent agent, it is evident that the Romans had mastered the chemistry of the process back then to preserve wine in amphorae even centuries ago.

Today, sailors commonly use pine tar as a wood preservative, wood putty to protect the integrity of the part in question with waterproof properties.

Summary of the study:

We study here the pitch used for the coating of three Roman amphoras of San Felice Circeo (Italy) through a multidisciplinary study. Identification of molecular biomarkers by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry is combined with archaeobotanical evidence from pollen and plant tissues from Vitis flowers. Diterpene chemical markers associated with Pines pollen and wood revealed a coating of Pinaceae tar. Pollen aporate 3-zonocolpate, identified as Vitis, as well as tartaric, malic and pyruvic acids elucidate the grape’s fermented nature of the content. Our findings open up new insights into the use of grape derivatives that cannot be supported by traditional analytical methods. Based on the findings of aporate Vitis pollen, also found in local samples from the modern and middle Pleistocene, we hypothesize the use of autochthonous vines. The presence of a medicinal wine (historically reported as oenanthium) is also taken into account. We question Vitis ability of pollen to target vine domestication, providing innovative tools to understand such an important process. We anticipate that our study will encourage a more systematic multidisciplinary approach to wine amphorae analyses.

Shirley M. Pinder