As Valentine’s Day approaches we find ourselves bombarded with a deluge of romantic suggestions and an overwhelming cavalcade of conventions which must be followed in order to emerge from the day unscathed. For now, however, let us step back to a simpler time; before greeting cards, before chocolate boxes and visit the age of the eponymous saint himself. Though the historical figure may be shrouded in mystery, the era of Valentine’s life can be demystified to give some hint of what his days would have been like.
Born at the height of the Roman Empire in the central Italian village of Interamna (modern day Terni), Valentine would have lived in a world that was dominated by wine. One of the trinity of the Roman diet, alongside bread and oil, wine was so important to the Roman way of life that it was deemed a daily necessity. Reasonable estimates put consumption in the city of Rome at approximately a bottle per day per person, with everyone indulging from the Imperial Court to the lowliest slaves.
"Wine was so important to the Roman way of life that it was deemed a daily necessity."
During Valentine’s day the Empire was experiencing a golden age of winemaking and drinking culture. Elements of wine culture which are familiar to us today were just as central to the Roman outlook on the trade. For instance the concept of vintage variation was well-entrenched with 121 BC (known then by the name of the consul of the time, Opimian) going down in history as the finest of the age. Balanced weather lead to both high yields and excellent quality, especially in the First Growth estates including Falernian in Campania.
The production at Falernian was nothing short of remarkable even if it is highly familiar. Made from a still fashionable blend of Aglianico and a bit of Greco, the grapes were allowed to remain on the vines until the frost set in making this an early example of ice wine. The wine was fermented in ceramic amphorae and allowed to mature for up to 20 years before release. Even after a vintage’s release, the wine was traded and cellared by connoisseurs who saw the value of top vintages increase over the years.
In fact, the Roman historian Varro wrote in 37 BC that wine from the Opimian vintage was even served 60 years on to Julius Caesar in honour of his conquest of Spain. The most venerated wine of the day were generally sweet wines so it makes sense that Falernian was among the most sought after. Remarkably, a bar in Pompeii is so well-preserved that even the price list on the wall states quite clearly; ‘for one coin you can drink wine, for two you can have the best, for four you can have Falernian.’ It seems that the maderised amber nectar from this estate was something of a Cult Wine.
"For one coin you can drink wine, for two you can have the best, for four you can have Falernian."
Wherever the Empire spread, vines were planted. As a result, many of the most prestigious wine regions in the world are the result of Roman influence. From the sun-baked vines of Andalusia to the precipitous slopes of the Mosel Valley, viticulture helped blaze the trail of Roman influence.
As wine was traded with peoples outside of the Empire’s borders, it served to bring a taste of Roman luxury and influence to potential subjects. In many ways, the trade of wine was the first action of a Roman invasion and the planting of vines; the consolidation of expansion. Even as it helped to swell the Empire’s size and make being Roman palatable to people from Syria to Britain, it may have proved an incentive to invaders later in Roman history. When the edict to forbid the trade of wine to non-romans went out in the 5th century, there was a remarkable increase in the frequency of barbarian raids and it can be rationalised that the Roman attitude to nationalising its wine supply may have led to the fall of the Western Empire.
So as you enjoy a glass of wine this Valentine’s Day, possibly with a loved one, take a moment to recall the history of what you’re enjoying. Once you’ve paid due deference to Valentine for the day and the roman winemakers who made modern wine possible you’ll be ready to delight in the end result. Shore up your toga, open your amphora and decant into a krater. For goodness sake allow this venerable old wine to breath before pouring into the proper stemware kalyx and then enjoy!
Nunc est bibendum!
Left to right: Drinking cup or kalyx, amphorae for wine storage and transport, and a krater for decanting and mixing wine.