Our image of ancient Roman drinking—bloated patricians, slurry sophists and jezebels washing down coarse wine from jars—is only part of the story. Ample evidence exists that ancient Rome had a fine wine culture much like today’s, with prestige regions, cult wines and a love of bold, rich styles meant to be aged for decades. Within this rarefied wine community, one wine stood above the rest, the toast of poets and senators alike.
The origins of Falernian wine are the stuff of legend. The story goes that an old Roman farmer (that would be Falernus) eked a humble existence from the soil of Mt. Massico, about 30 miles north of Naples, when one day he was visited by Bacchus in disguise. Falernus prepared him a simple meal, and in gratitude for the hospitality, the god of wine caused the cups at the table to fill. When a hungover Falernus awoke the next day, Bacchus was gone, and the whole mountain was blanketed with healthy vines.
Probably a varietal wine made from a grape the Romans called Aminea Gemina, Falernian was grown in three vineyards on the slopes of Mt. Massico. (Today, the area encompasses the Falerno del Massico DOC, where the primary grapes grown are Falanghina, Aglianico and Piedirosso.)
Numerous “domaines” held stakes in the three vineyards, but the one midway up the Massican slope was considered to have the best terroir, and it was, at least for a time, owned by one man, named Faustus—think Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and the La Romanée-Conti and La Tâche grands crus.
If the partitioning of the vineyards mirrored a Burgundian system, the hype surrounding Falernian was all Bordeaux. Falernian from 121 B.C. (the vintage of a lifetime!) was celebrated for decades; multiple ancient sources mention having the chance to taste the wine 200 years after its vintage date. (Writing in the first century, Pliny the Elder acknowledges that the wine was a bit past its peak by then.) Gaius Trimalchio, the new-money buffoon of Petronius’ comedy Satyricon, acts the big shot when he serves this vintage—by this time 180-year-old vinegar—at a dinner party.
As Falernian became a byword for luxury, inevitably, the demand for it spurred spurious “Falernians” into the market, another ancient practice still alive today. On one tavern wall preserved at Pompeii, the wine list can be seen: “For one as [a unit of currency; a loaf of bread cost two] you can drink wine; for two, you can drink the best; for four, you can drink Falernian.” This is suspicious, though, the equivalent of your local Sizzler pouring Pétrus.
What was this wine like? Author, philosopher and polymath Pliny identified three types of Falernian—“the rough, the sweet and the thin.” Falernian may have been either white or red—or both, we don’t know. Some people believe Aminea could either be today’s Greco di Tufo (a white) or Aglianico (a red), but so far no one has extracted ancient grape DNA to conclusively identify it.
However, says Dr. Patrick McGovern, author of Ancient Wine and Uncorking the Past, “Roman writings seem to point toward white being more special, which is interesting because white grapes represent a mutation that occurs relatively infrequently.”
The grapes were harvested late and, like many ancient wines, left to dry before being fermented to 15 or 16 percent alcohol—though the Romans cut their wines with water when drinking. The Vin Santo and Amarone we drink today are made much the same way.
“These ancient techniques really stand the test of time,” says McGovern, scientific director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory. “When you read these [wine] treatises from the Roman period, it’s almost like you’re reading a modern handbook on viticulture. They follow a lot of the same principles we do of trying to train the vines to grow in certain ways, protecting them from the sun or getting them enough sun, plus managing watering and irrigation issues.”
Falernian likewise stood the test of time, ranking among Rome’s top wines for at least five centuries, through the vagaries of many emperors’ tastes. Not every regent preferred Falernian, though; some even rolled their eyes at the hype. Marcus Aurelius, an emperor who usually shrugged at the finer things, kept a sense of perspective about this luxury: After all, he wrote, even “Falernian wine is just juice from a bunch of grapes.”