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A Toast to Ancient Taste: Pompeii Cultivates Grapes of History

Antiquity: Scholars of archeology, botany, oenology, classics converge on small plot among Italian ruins in effort to recreate wines that delighted early Romans.


POMPEII, Italy — The foot-worn curbs and wheel ruts and a thousand other details of this mummified city speak of life 2,000 years ago.

But if Pompeii offers a glimpse of antiquity, it may soon serve up a tangible taste of life a couple of millenniums ago.

Pompeii's archeologists and a nearby winery are attempting to recreate the wines of the ancient Romans.

The wine trade was a major part of Roman commerce. It contributed much to the wealth of Pompeii, a pleasure-loving port city with more than 200 bars.

Now a small vineyard has been planted exactly where a Pompeii wine merchant named Eusinus had his own vines, which were buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79.

The plot will be cultivated and the wine fermented according to the instructions in works by ancient Latin authors.

At the same time, scientists are attempting to extract DNA information from grape seeds and pieces of grapevine wood found at Pompeii. The ancient samples will be compared with the modern grapevines, a comparison that will give a picture of how the modern plants have evolved.

The project is part of a larger effort by Pompeii's architectural custodians to preserve a different kind of past. It is not the past of monuments but of landscape, of the sculpted gardens, agriculture and topography of ancient Rome.

The eruption of Vesuvius didn't cover just a city with ash, lava and mud. It spread over a 400-square-mile region, effectively encapsulating an entire natural environment, said Annamaria Ciarallo, director of Pompeii's Applied Research Laboratory.

"We are trying to recreate this landscape," she said. "The vineyard is an example of this. The attempt to recreate the agriculture of the epoch helps us identify the entire cycle of production.

"It can give a picture of the social-economic situation of the city and the territory around it, and how natural resources affect the life of a city."

On a recent hot day, a gardener unlocked the gate of the House of Eusinus, excavated in 1984-85.

Walking through the narrow living quarters in front, you come upon a 60- by 75-foot plot. This was the vineyard of Eusinus, which produced about 200 liters of wine a year. Jagged pieces of amphorae are embedded in the surrounding walls to keep out the unwanted.

The foot-tall vines lie in 12 rows about 43 inches apart. Each plant is 36 inches from its neighbor.

Distances are greater in modern vineyards, said Carlo Mastroberardino, whose family's winery is providing technical help. That increases production because more grapes grow on each vine.

With the plants closer together, the grape bunches are fewer but therefore more concentrated in sugar, creating a stronger wine. And that was the way the Romans liked it, he said.

Lead poisoning from the lead pipes and the presence of lead in utensils and dishware caused a deadening of the taste sensation among the ancient Romans, scientists have concluded. So the Romans preferred stronger tastes all around.

They often seasoned their wine with honey and spices or diluted it with saltwater, said the 33-year-old Mastroberardino, a passionate Pompeian. They also mixed in mint, rose petals and pepper.

The vineyard is growing six varieties of grapes native to the surrounding Campania region: aglianico, coda di volpe, falanghina, fiano, greco and piedirosso.

Greek settlers brought the vines to Campania about 750 B.C., said Maurizio Boselli, an agronomy professor at the University of Naples.

Olive, cherry and peach trees have been replanted exactly where they once grew in the old vineyard. So have the vines. Botanists determined what grew where by examining plaster casts of root and trunk cavities.

Each side of the vines will be pruned in alternate years, just as Pliny the Younger prescribed.

The grapes will grow without added fertilizer. They will be crushed by feet, pressed by a wooden press and fermented in the open air, inside vats buried up to their necks in the earth to keep them cool.

Today, fermentation is generally accomplished in sealed vats, using yeast.

Eusinus' latest vintage should be ready in about two years, Mastroberardino said.

Wine, like olive oil, was a lifeblood of the ancient world.

For the Romans, it was an object of connoisseurship. But it also had more mundane uses. It was the only source of alcohol used as a base for herb-derived medicines, said Ciarallo, the archeologist.

Wine also played an important role in ritual life. It was used at weddings, religious festivals and literary gatherings modeled after the Greek symposia, said Robert Rogers, a Classics professor at the University of Vermont and an expert on Roman agriculture.

Wine was a "connection with the ground one lived on," he said, something that made the Romans "feel part of continuum."

The Mastroberardino family traces its roots in the wine trade to the early 18th century, and Antonio Mastroberardino, Carlo's father and head of the winery, seems part of that continuum Rogers spoke of.

A small, trim man who projects the authority of a patriarch, he took over the family winery during World War II while in his teens.

At the winery in Avellino, about 45 minutes from Pompeii, Mastroberardino flipped through a stack of leather-bound volumes. They are 400-year-old Latin and Italian editions of works by ancient authors, such as Cato the Elder, Pliny, Varro and Columella, with detailed information on winemaking.

"We are drinking not some made-up drink, but something as old as man," he said.

"In every time, wine has represented a moment of pleasure, but also a moment of culture. We have the function of priests to transmit to the consumer, not something to get drunk on, but something that tells us the meaning of life."

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