Classical vintage: tracing the origins of today’s wines to their Roman roots

: In The Wandering Vine: Wine, the Romans and Me, Nina Caplan blends travel, history, thinking and drinking.

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At the end of February, just before the snow fell and covered Rome with a thick white blanket that had priests merrily throwing snowballs under the colonnades of the Vatican, I was trudging through the Forum looking at the remains of the ancient city. We reached the Elagabalium, the temple erected by the kinkiest of emperors, which had been long since replaced by a chapel dedicated to the martyr Saint Sebastian. A text explained that the surrounding area had been subsequently turned into a walled vineyard by the princely Barberini family, but there was no trace of that. The vines had been pulled up in 1910.

I found myself wondering what the wine from that last great inner-city Roman vineyard was like, and whether the Barberinis or anyone else might have a bottle stashed away in their cellars. Having read Nina Caplan’s The Wandering Vine I rather think she would share my interest in a wine that had its roots in the Capitoline Hill and the very forum of ancient Rome.

The Wandering Vine is an ambitious book and defies easy description. There are the three themes of the subtitle: “wine, the Romans and me” but there are possibly several others besides, including Judaism. The “wandering” of the title is the wandering of the homeless Jew after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. According to Caplan, this magazine’s drink writer, the vine, like the mocker of Christ, Ahasverus, is a wanderer, although one that puts down roots wherever it goes. It was propagated by the Romans, who took it as far as England. Wine is therefore a metaphor for an enduring, European civilisation. She reminds us too that before Romans and Catholics, Jews had their rituals that featured wine, and that the Old Testament is peppered with references to it, but I suspect she is unfair to the “upstart” Christians whose religion is so closely linked to bread and wine. The Catholic church slipped on the clothes of the Roman Empire, and to some extent it is still sporting them to this day.

Caplan follows the path of the Romans in reverse, from the Isle of Thanet to Rome passing through Champagne, Burgundy and the Rhône Valley. Much of it is familiar territory to me. I recall the wine-maker Philippe Guigal’s father Marcel saying he could get a good mosaic or an architrave if I wished (but it would cost), while Gilles Barge took me up his giddily steep hillside overlooking the Rhône and demonstrated why growers in Côte Rôtie had “round calves and flat stomachs”. Caplan invokes my old friend Tim Johnston, who quite rightly told the French winegrower Auguste Clape to shun new oak barrels. She locates the synagogue in Carpentras, which I only spotted recently despite wandering past it more than a hundred times with a full bag after shopping at the Friday market. The policeman with the sub-machine gun gave the game away. Most of Carpentras’s Jews fled a generation ago after their ancestors’ graves were daubed with swastikas in 1990. These days there must be a larger community in the rather smaller but more genteel town of Pernes-les-Fontaines.

Instead of proceeding directly to Rome, however, she swings right at the bottom of the Rhône Valley and travels to Catalonia. I envied her Priorat, a region I have never fully explored. In Andalusia she is in her element, exploring the many remains left by the Jews, who were only expelled from their 1,000-year-old communities in Seville, Cordoba and Cadiz at the close of the 15th century. From Spain she crosses to Sicily, travelling up to Rome via the Campania, stopping at ruins and wineries along the way.

There’s a lot of “me” in the book and other people besides. There are the various winemakers whose wines she tastes and “C” – the man in her life. There is also the frequently invoked memory of her revered father, the psychiatrist Harold Caplan, a wine lover involved in the administration of the Wine Society who died in 2003. When “C” declaims in the Roman theatre in Autun, Caplan cringes, and remembers her father correcting sommeliers, but Nina is a chip off the old block. To enjoy The Wandering Vine you have to make allowances for digressions and deviations and considerable pedantry. She wants to take us back to the wine map of Pliny and Columella and trace the origins of today’s grape varieties in those of Roman times, but even if the cultivars were the same, the character of grapes is quick to mutate and it is unlikely that the flavour is any way the same.

The Wandering Vine is ultimately both a wine and a travel book, but Caplan is keen to try something new. I am sympathetic: wine writing has descended to reams of indigestible tasting notes and over-inflated scores, and travel writing appears to be mostly composed of gobbets about spa treatments in expensive hotels, somebody needs to rescue both. Caplan is surely on the right path, and Rome’s influence on what we think and drink is a monument to be preserved at all costs. 

 

Giles MacDonogh is a historian and former winner of the Glenfiddich Food and Drink Award

 

The Wandering Vine: Wine, the Romans and Me
Nina Caplan
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge