Romano-British Wine; An unexplored heritage?
An Ancient Legacy; British wine under Rome
Around two thousand years ago, the Roman Tacticus described Britain as ‘hostile and unsuitable for the growing of grapes or olives’. Despite indications that our climate was warmer then than it is now, we have never had an ideal landscape for viticulture.
In capturing ‘Britannia’ the Romans helped to introduce the loose network of tribes and peoples on this far-flung corner of the known world, into the very centre of European culture; and in doing so created a national habit. But through grapevine pollen samples found within soil from areas such as the Nene Valley, we know they overcame the challenges of our climate and the vines and which they planted, and culture they inspired, survived long into the Middle Ages.
In examining the very earliest attributes of English viticulture we have to first establish one principle. What was the reasoning behind introducing a crop, which is notoriously difficult to cultivate in cold and temperamental climates?
With a booming industry already flourishing on the continent and around the Mediterranean, alongside well-established trade links already existing in and out of Britain, it’s difficult to envisage the answer being based around economic reasons. Unlike in the traditional wine growing areas, we have no archaeological record for mass production, such as billhooks or grape presses.
Instead we have to think more in terms of the culture of the age. The vine represented something more to the Romans than simply the end product. Instead, a vineyard was an emblem of a ‘ruling elite’, a beacon of civilisation in an area so far, both geographically and culturally, from the sophistication of the Mediterranean world. If you like, this was an early example of cultural imperialism.
A Living Legacy
The so-called ‘Wrotham Pinot’ is a living testimony to these first vintners. This grape has managed to survive for almost two thousand years, adapting a greater disease resistance and flourishing in relative obscurity. As a direct clone of Pinot Noir, its ability to thrive in much cooler climates illustrates how aware the Romans must have been to matching grapes and environment. Its re-emergence now shows us just how important an ancient legacy can be to modern wine producers.
When the ‘Bacchus’ grape was first produced, only forty years ago, it was named after the
original Roman God of wine. Even to this day then, we consciously link our own enjoyment of wine to a legacy spanning millennia.
The Bacchus grape is now the fourth most grown grape in the U.K. and a living embodiment of a cultural exchange between modern cultivation and our ancient past. So why not raise a glass of Chapel Down’s Bacchus and reflect on how a Roman obsession was embraced by generations of our ancestors and can still shape our enjoyment to this day.
- London to produce its first organic wine since the middle ages (guardian.co.uk)