‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’, is a well-worn phrase that brings a smile recalling rib-tickling laughter brought on by the famous Monty Python sketch. We know that the Roman armies that marched up Watling Street in the first and subsequent centuries in fact did a lot to civilize what was the British Isles of old. There are few areas of England, Wales and the Lowlands of Scotland that are far from Romano-British settlements. With their armies the Romans brought a way of life that was quite different. Romano-British hospitality came to mean sharing a flagon of wine.
The Romans had problems, not only with the colder climate but also their choice of tipple to slake a thirst was just not available. Enter Mr Roman Procurator who would have sent off for an importation of Roman wine to keep up morale. This would in those days have arrived in Roman amphora in the hold of a sailing ship. In a warmer climate than of today, rootstock became available and vines were eventually planted and wine produced commercially in Roman Britain; there is evidence for intensive wine-making in the Nene Valley of Northamptonshire, where recently a 35 hectare site was discovered at Wollaston. Our friendly Roman soldier and his family would relish the arrival of carts with barrels of British varietal wine at their local ‘Bargain Booze’ of the day.
Recently I attended a wine tasting of quite good quality Chianti, made in the region of Tuscany. I was assured by an erudite Italian gentleman, who ran a private dining club, that the Chianti was the best in show and I found indeed it had that lovely fruity glow and long finish one would expect. Was he a latter-day Roman Procurator? Was there a keenness to please one's guests, a need to pass on good civilizing customs. I felt a closeness to an Epicurian life-style at that moment and in that tasting hall.
The typical Chianti Classico wine is a ruby-red, Sangiovese-based wine with aromas of violets and cherries and a hint of earthy spice. If you can get hold of a bottle of one of the best producers, Marchese Antinori’s Chianti Classico Riserva, available from Waitrose at £35, you will see what I mean. Of course there are more affordable alternatives and the wine categories to look for are Annata (the standard wines); Riserva (longer ageing), and Gran Selezione (the best vines with longer ageing) are the top selection. The Chianti DOCG wine appellation has been very controversial such that the Marchase left the grower’s consortium in 1975 due to the restrictive laws about having to add local white wine to soften the tannin-laden Sangiovese wines. He saw another way forward and created the famous super-Tuscan wines Tignanello and Solaia, selling them as Toscana IGT. Now the laws have changed again and the Marchese’s new Chianti Classico label is another step forward in quality and authenticity. It's worth musing on the fact that a single varietal, readily available and easy-drinking wine, possibly a forerunner of Chianti, is the sharing wine of the Romans, and that they took back to Italy after four hundred years of occupation, a tradition and left a monumental thirst.
Clear Wine Co. Founder, shares his latest wine-based musings and expertise to get your taste buds tingling.