Underwater cellars, wines matured in the sea, vague hints of saltiness, robust young men with long beards sporting a mixed Italo-Anglophone dictionary, shaking glasses with swollen chests like in the best marketing offices in Milan and Parma… Actually, sea wines are not exactly a novelty for our beloved fermented grape drink.
In Cato‘s time (2nd century BC), the Romans’ appreciation of Greek wine was already evident to the point of being systematically imitated. Findings of amphorae in Modena, which had been wrested from the local Celt tribes, the Boi Gauls, as early as the 3rd century B.C. show that wine was very frequently present on the tables of the wealthy, to the point that, just as today, a strict classification by quality was made according to grape variety, processing, and origin. A bit like in our wine shops today.
What does this have to do with sea wines? Well, it seems that oenological techniques were not exactly advanced at the time, and in these amphorae were found the remains of a wine that was laced and preserved with seawater and defrutum, a kind of cooked must related to the saba we (in Modena, Italy) use today, in Modena, as the base for balsamic vinegar.
The greatest expert on wine in the history of Ancient Rome, the archaeologist André Tchernia (whose books have never been translated to Italian, it seems, much to the frustration of the undersigned who has to approach the French language with dictionary and apps) speaks extensively in his writings of wine preservation techniques permuted by the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean, from which the Romans later (and the Etruscans and Celts before them) purchased prized wines such as that of Kos (which is still produced with lots of resins! ) and that of Rhodes. Of these correction techniques and on how to save wines that were beginning to show an acetic hint I will tell you more later when we talk about posca, sguazzone, vin sottile and puntalone :-), but suffice it to say that herbs, honey, resins and spices were regularly added until the late 17th century to correct wine faults when ancient analogs of today’s vermuth and sangria were the order of the day on our tables.
It also seems that in the Modena area, at the time when it was called Mutina, the most popular wines were precisely the latter, of a type that today we would call passiti, diluted therefore in small percentages with saline solutions that at the time were considered to have conservation functions, as is also the case with cheeses and cured meats. The Romans sadly tried to imitate them in a sometimes unequal competition, a bit like what happens today in the friendly competition that has been going on for decades between us and France, trying drying techniques that even reached four years under the sun (again, see Cato). Even Columella had codified procedures to imitate Greek wine, which was left to age in terracotta amphorae a bit like we do today with barrels such as the famous barrique.
There is still a lot to be said about the production of wine in ancient times, and that it was also drunk here in Emilia-Romagna (as throughout the Roman Empire), from the crushing in the cocciopesto (Italian for ‘large vats with a bottom made of pressed shards and debris’), but that’s enough for today. I leave you with a recipe from Cato’s De Agri Coltura, the sea wine of the food snobs of the 2nd century BC.
If you want to make Coum wine, take seawater from the high seas on a calm day with no wind, 70 days before the grape harvest, so that fresh water does not arrive (rain could alter the quality of the sea water). Once it has been taken from the ocean, pour it into a barrel, not filling it completely but leaving a five-quarter empty space. Put the lid on but make sure there is airflow. After 30 days, decant into another barrel gently, leaving the deposit at the bottom. After another 20 days, decant into another barrel, repeating the operation until the harvest. To make Coum wine, leave the grapes on the vine until they are well ripened and then pick them when dry and out of the rain, leaving them in the open air in the sun for two or three days if it does not rain. If it rains, place it under the roof on trellises and remove every rotten grain. Then take 100 litres of sea water for 50 kg of mixed grapes [‘in dolium quinquagenarium infundito aquae marinae Q. X.’]. Remove the bunches from the grapes and pour the must into the dolia, continuing until it is completely filled. Press the grapes by hand so that they absorb the sea water. Close the barrel with the perforated lid and leave it in a cool, dry place for three days. After three days, remove the contents of the cask, press them in the wine press and pour the wine into clean, dry casks.
Cato, De Agri Coltura