Yes, here in the northern hemisphere it’s that time of year again: the daylight hours are very, very short, and the nighttime hours are very, very long. And funnily enough, this is the festive time when we celebrate the holidays – traditionally at the start of the New Year when the days begin to get longer. Myth and history combine to give us all kinds of festivities and holiday traditions to follow.
When it comes to the traditions we choose for this darkest time of the year: we have the Roman Empire to thank for quite a few of them. Most of it, at least for those of us in the West, goes back to the Roman festival of Saturnalia which literally was a celebration of the deity Saturn, held somewhere around the winter solstice. They exchanged gifts at that time just like we do at Christmas.
And boy, did those Romans know how to party! There are many descriptions from historians about what they did and how hard they did it! But did you know that the Romans drank a lot of wine? In fact, during the Roman Empire, drinking wine was MANDATORY at many celebrations.
So what did they drink? They drank red wine and white wine. They drank wine to which herbs were added. I visited the Mas des Tourelles winery in southern France in which they had found Roman remains of wine-making instruments. The winery had a museum showing how the Romans pressed the grapes and made the wine.
And even better, they had found a recipe for a Roman wine. I tasted it at the winery – it’s quite sweet and full of herbal flavours. According to the website the wine tastes like honey and was much appreciated by the Greeks, then by the Romans. It had a great reputation as an aperitif. It tastes of wine, honey, spices and plants. (This is a rough translation made by myself from the original language).
The Romans drank wine at almost every occasion. And just like us, they drank young wine and they drank aged wine. And guess what? They paid more for the aged wine than the young wine. Sound familiar? Goes to prove there’s nothing new under the sun!
So when you celebrate the holidays this year, and as you raise your glass of wine to toast the season, you’re continuing a tradition that started thousands of years ago.
Enjoy your wine, and I hope you enjoyed this little peek into Roman Empire wine history!