Resurrecting the Ancient Wines of Pompeii

What did the earliest Roman wines taste like? Were the highly appraised wines of the first century really worth their legendary status? Will we ever know?

List of suggested wines at bottom

Mastroberardino Vineyard in Pompeii
Mastroberardino Vineyard in Pompeii

When Vesuvius blew in August of 79 AD, ash covered the entire area of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The thriving seaport towns, once bustling with activity, became graveyards of civilizations frozen in time. There it lay undisturbed for eighteen centuries until it was excavated by Giuseppe Fiorelli, director of excavations from 1860 to 1875. Under twelve feet of solid ash, he discovered the decayed bodies of thirteen men, women, and children huddled together next to a stone wall inside their garden, where they suffocated in the swirling volcanic air.

Orchard of the Fugitives

Today the garden has been named the Orchard of the Fugitives. But instead of death, it is filled with green grass, robust grape vines, and fruit trees. Within the ruins of Pompeii, vineyards are being revived in an attempt to recreate the wines of the ancient Romans according to old Roman methods. In Pompeii’s heyday, vineyards grew in abundance in and around the city. The Villa dei Misteri, the project shared between the Archaeological Superintendence of Pompeii and Campania wine estate Mastroberardino, has been examining ancient frescos, root imprints, Roman authors, and DNA to identify the original grape varieties cultivated in Pompeii.

Pompeii Vineyard
Pompeii Vineyard

Is it actually possible to recreate the ancient Roman wines? Do the vines still exist?

Piero Mastroberardino, the winemaker in charge of the renown Mastroberardino winery in Campania, has been replanting vineyards in Pompeii using the same ancient grape varieties, viticulture and winemaking techniques of that period. Since the early 1700’s, the family has been dedicated to Aglianico, Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo, among other varieties brought to Campania by ancient Greeks, producing consistently good quality wine.

Pompeii’s Applied Research Laboratory, founded in 1995, discovered plots of land pockmarked by holes that were evidence of vines and their supporting stakes. A year later these vineyards were replanted. The laboratory discovered that many of the green areas within Pompeii had been planted with grape vines. A dense concentration of them were situated close to the arena. In fact, all five vineyards discovered by the research lab were located near the coliseum.

Ancient Roman wine was very strong, but it was usually diluted with seawater before drinking. It was also used for medicinal purposes. Spices were added, or medicinal herbs to cure sickness. The Romans clearly understood alcohols ability to extract essential elements from herbs.

Pompeii Vineyard Today

Pliny the Elder

Ancient Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote extensively about wine. In his book Naturalis historia, he lists the grape varieties that were in common use. These were Greco, Fiano, Aglianico, Piedirosso, Sciascinoso, Coda di Bolpe, Caprettona, and Falanghina. These eight grape varietals are grown in Pompeii’s vineyards. Interestingly, it was the frescos found in Pompeii that partly identified the grape varietal as they each have their own shape. Studying DNA only gives the species, not the variety. Scientists at Pompeii were able to decipher the grape varietals through ancient texts, root imprints, and studies on climatic change as well.

“Campanian wines were considered the wines of the emperors, the wines for events,” states Mastroberardino. “They were the first to introduce the DOC,” he claims, referring to the rules that govern viticulture and labeling practices in Italy today. On the amphorae of that period, you find the geographic origin of the wine, then the bolla, which is the seal of the producer, then the vintage.”

Mastroberardino Wine Cellar
Mastroberardino Wine Cellar

Today, restaurants and wine distributors carry Mastroberardino’s wines with honor. Their committment to tradition and cultivation of ancient grape varietals, and their ability to blend modern technology with time-tested techniques has placed the Mastroberardino winery as one of the most excellent in Campania.

Mastroberardino Wine Label

So, here is your chance to taste the wines of the ancient Romans, made of the same grape varietals that were used over two thousand years ago, though not as strong, thankfully. Cultivated on the same soil around Vesuvius and nourished by the warmth of the sun, these wines are sure to please. Indulge in a glass and let your mind wander among the streets and shops of ancient  Pompeii.

All wines may be purchased through wine shops or restaurants.

Recommended Mastroberardino Wines:

2011 Mastroberardino, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Bianco DOC $23–made entirely of an indigenous varietal called Coda di Volpe, it is a soft pale yellow in color with aromas of pears and apricots.

2011 Mastroberardino, Greco di Tufo DOCG $28–One of Italy’s most ancient grape varietals, Greco has been grown in Campania for thousands of years. It is an elegant, soft-bodied wine with a texture held together by a zesty acidity.

2011 Mastroberardino, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso DOC $23–The red brother to its white sister, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso shares the same legend and origin. An intense Ruby color, aromas of cherry and red berries, and soft flavors of plum, raspberry, and black pepper, this is the result of the Piedirosso grapes of this wine.

2010 Mastroberardino, Campania Aglianico IGT $28–Made from another ancient grape of Italy, Aglianico thrives in the volcanic soil and terroir of Campania. Blackberries and violets are the aromas one can find in a glass of this wine.

Related Articles:

**Grape Harvest in Pompeii-Oct. 2013

*Campania Wineries

*Back From the Ashes

*Mastroberardino Wines

Pompeii is Losing its Pomp

Pompeii

Never have any historical sites blown my mind quite like Pompeii and its smaller neighbor Heculaneum. The vast array of ruins spread out before me from a civilization that suddenly ceased to exist is simply unbelievable. Buried under 30 feet of hot ash from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79, they have laid perfectly preserved until excavations began in the 18th century. Much is left to see and investigate, including some still partially imbedded lead pipes once used for the water supply. Elegant tile mosaics, colorful frescoes’ and brick walls bring dimension to these ghost cities.

Pompeii street

It’s obvious that Pompeii was a thriving harbor town in its time. It’s obvious that Pompeii was a thriving harbor town in its time. In recent years, walls have crumbled and collapses continue to occur. Because the ancient Roman city is seriously exposed to the elements, it is constantly in a state of emergency. This UNESCO World Heritage site, one of the biggest and most important sites in the world, happens to be located in an area with one of the highest concentrations of organized crime in all of Europe, according to Fabrizio Barca, minister of territorial cohesion for Prime Minister Mario Monte.

Pompeii House with Frescoes

The Great Pompeii Project, which began a $137 million effort by the European Union, has been an effort to preserve Pompeii and also make it accessible to the public. It strives to support a culture-driven society against perilous odds. Bureaucracy has been a constant challenge. The result is a lack of strategic planning and the limited personnel of the site’s troubled management.

Pompeii Frescoes

Conservators who attempt to impart a plan of systematic maintenance of the 163 acre site are thwarted by emergent temporary repairs of crumbling walls and water-damaged frescoes.

Pillars of another time
Pillars of another time…remains of a prestigious Villa

Fortunately, many of the artifacts found in Pompeii are safely tucked away in Naples Archaeological Museum to be seen and enjoyed by the public. However, Pompeii offers the best look anywhere at what life in Rome must have been like around 2,000 years ago, providing archaeologists volumes about daily Roman life.

Lemon Orchards in the midst of  ruins
Lemon Orchards in the midst of ruins

Walking through Pompeii is like taking a stroll through the ancient past. It’s easy to imagine the hustle and bustle, chariots clattering down the stone streets, people grouped together in conversation, shopkeepers, foreigners, sailors and city administrators, all mingling to create a famous commercial port town…..the crossroads of many civilizations.

Faun Memories of Pompeii

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Mr. Faun Dancing in Front of His Elaborate Residence

“It was such a leafy wilderness; a place for fauns and satyrs, and where bats hung all day to the rocks, and at evening flitted over the water, and fireflies husbanded their light under the grass and leaves against the night”  Henry David Thoreau

The little Faun under the volcano.

When Mt. Vesuvius blew her top in 79 AD, ash rained down on the city of Pompeii for two days. The entire city was buried under 20 feet, encasing and preserving the many buildings and artwork of this fascinating port city for 1700 years. Archaeologically, this enabled the city to remain mostly untouched and encased in its original state.

One of the most unusual finds was this small bronze faun.

Faun Dancing
He Looks Alive!

This faun appears to be dancing lightly on tiptoe, possibly as part of a Bacchic celebration or one of religious ecstasy. His movements and form are strong and sure, his eyes fixed directly upward. I was drawn to the realistic twisting of the chest and shoulders and his controlled energy. He looks like he could awaken at any minute.

Faun Front Museum
Swaying Gracefully in Perfect Form

The fauns home was the largest and most opulent residence in Pompeii. It took up an entire city block and has been named “The House of the Faun,” after his charming self. He was the showpiece in the elaborate pool, standing as the focus of the grand courtyard. The artist is unknown, but this refined workmanship in bronze, with the muscular physic, has been traced to the Nile Delta, most likely Alexandria.

Faun House
Possible Composition of Faun in his pool called the Impluvium

Spirits of the untamed woodland, fauns were understood by the literate and Hellenized Romans to be connected to Pan and Greek satyrs, or possibly the wildflowers of Bacchus, the god of wine, theatre and revelry. They are mostly depicted in the pose of lilting gracefulness. Yet they are mischievous characters in Greek and Roman literature.

Faun National Archaeological Museum
Today he lives in the National Archeological Museum in Naples

The National Archeological Museum is full of Roman and Greek antiquities, many from Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum. You will find several sculptures and mosaics, including one of Alexander the Great also found in the House of the Faun. Be prepared to spend a good part of the day as there is much to see. I found it very well displayed, organized and intriguing. Most of the artifacts from Pompeii are housed here.

National Archeological Museum, Piazza Museo 19, 80135 Napoli, closest underground station, Piazza Cavour, Hours: Wednesday – Monday 9-7:30pm, phone (0039) 081 44 22 149

Pompeii Hours: April-October every day from 8:30am-7:30pm, November-March 8:30am-5pm every day

Pizza, Napoli Style

Naples Side Street- Searching for Good Pizza
Pizza and Naples are synonymous! 

We had just spent the day exploring the National Archeological Museum of Naples. A  big task. I loved taking in all the fragments of art and history, from ancient Pompeii to the early Romans. Although it consumed a lot of energy, it left me in a state of bliss.

Afterwards, winding our way down the Via Tribunali, a major byway through Naples, we found ourselves overcome by a colossal hunger for pizza. And of course, we all know that Naples turns out the very best.

Pizzeria-hole in the wall with people waiting...good sign!
Pizzeria hole in the wall with people waiting…good sign!

We passed several before we found this one, L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele. Founded in 1870, this pizzeria has been established here since 1930. There are only two true Neapolitan pizzas~ Marinara and Margherita.

pizza crew
Crew of the L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, keepers of “the sacred temple of pizza.”

So many can’t be that wrong! However, as I worked my way through the crowd, I found that I needed to take a number and wait. I didn’t hesitate, especially after spying Julia Roberts on a poster from her movie “Eat, Pray, Love” on the front door. Her pizza scene was filmed right here in this tiny little unobtrusive pizzeria. Julia Roberts and this many people certainly can’t be wrong. I took up my posts outside and waited patiently for 30 minutes (yes, I timed it. I was starving!).

Juliea Roberts besst
Julia Roberts inhaling pizza in “Eat, Pray, Love.”
We sat with locals
Lunching with locals is always the best! They know where to find great bargain food.

Inside were six tables built to seat four people each. We enjoyed great conversation with a young couple from Naples next to us. She spoke less english and was a bit quiet, but she had a warm and engaging smile.

Great Smiles!
Love Those Grins!

My husband Carl had a lively conversation with this young man. He is an attorney in Naples, and his English was excellent.

Happy Tummies, Great Company!
Happy Tummies, Great Company!

We did as the locals do and ordered what they did~Margherita with extra cheese. I was not disappointed. It was the best pizza ever. Since then I have been looking for the same pizza, only to come up disillusioned. Well, no better excuse to go back to Naples and gratify my cravings at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele!

Pizza Michele sign
L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele
Via Cesare Sersale,
Naples, Italy