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Ancient grape varieties

antique grape varieties (GB)

Many of today's grape varieties probably carry genetic material from old vines, which were already cultivated in ancient times by the Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians. However, most of the traditional grape varieties that still exist today probably did not emerge from the then existing varieties until the Middle Ages or later centuries. Most of the ancient grape varieties had a blue or black berry colour. The red, yellow and green varieties only developed later through mutation and were preserved by vegetative propagation as independent colour varieties. Thus Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Meunier were created by bud mutations on Pinot. Which varieties were actually cultivated by the Romans can only be guessed at today, because there is nothing but Latin names and rough descriptions of the Roman varieties. The map shows the Roman Empire at the time of its greatest expansion at the end of the reign of Emperor Hadrian (53-117).

Antike Rebsorten - Römisches Reich zur Zeit der größten Ausdehnung 115 n. Chr.

Grape varieties in ancient Rome

However, the names of varieties used by the Romans were no longer in use during the Middle Ages. Thus, 2000 years later there are no longer any clear linguistic bridges to grape varieties still existing today simply because of the names that have been handed down. Molecular genetics or DNA analysis would only be able to help here if fossil grape variety remains from Roman excavations could be directly compared with the DNA of varieties still existing today. However, this has not been attempted so far. Therefore, one is completely dependent on the rough descriptions which, due to certain characteristics of the vine with regard to morphology(flowers, shoots, grapes, leaves), susceptibility to disease, vegetation cycle and wine characteristics, only allow the assumption of a relationship to today's varieties to be very imprecise at best.

The basis for this are the descriptions of Roman viticulture by contemporary witnesses. Historical reporters such as Strabo (63 BC to 28 AD), Columella (1st century AD) and Pliny the Elder (23-79) mentioned the most important grape varieties of their time in their works and some of them described in detail cultivation methods, fertility (yield) and the quality of the ancient wines made from them. Among them were the varieties Allobrogica, Aminea, Arcelaca (also Argitis), Biturica (also Balisca or Cocolubis) and Nomentana. Pliny mentions a local grape variety Holconia, which was named in Pompeii after one of the most famous families there. From Sicily, the Greeks introduced the Murgentina to Pompeii long before the turn of time, which developed very well on the volcanic soil of the Vesuvius slopes.

Descendants of the ancient vine varieties

Lambrusco, which is now widespread in Emilia-Romagna with its numerous varieties, can also be included in a broader sense, as this variety (or ancestor) was already mentioned by Cato the Elder (234-149 BC). In general it can be assumed that in the warm, Mediterranean influenced cultivation zones there are still varieties whose ancestors were already cultivated by the Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians and at least passed on their genes. These could be Aglianico, César, Chasselas, Coda di Volpe Bianca, Falanghina, Fiano, Greco, Greco Bianco, Korinthiaki and Lambrusca di Alessandria (see also under César). Presumably the ancient advanced civilizations were already engaged in the breeding (crossing) of new varieties.

Antike Rebsorten - Aglianico, Coda di Volpe Bianca, Falanghina, Greco, Lambrusco di Alessandria

However, there is no clear and scientifically recognized evidence. What may be true of the southern growing areas is certainly not true of the northern continental growing areas. For one must be aware that there the Mediterranean varieties that require warmth and ripen late have not necessarily been successful. It is therefore assumed that in the regions more threatened by winter frost, crossbreeding with local wild vines has taken place in order to ensure a shortened ripening phase and higher frost resistance. As the Celts (Gauls) were already involved in viticulture, it is assumed that old varieties such as Pinot and Traminer were already being cultivated in Roman times. The high age and the wide distribution would then explain why many regional mutations or clone variants of these varieties could develop.

Some apparently plausible assumptions had to be revoked in the meantime due to genetic relationship analyses. For example, the Roman vine Vitis albuelis (Vitis alba) mentioned by the two authors Columella and Plinius mentioned above is most probably not to be equated with the white Elbling, because the latter was certainly not created until the late Middle Ages as a child of the White Heunisch(Gouais Blanc). This also applies to well over a hundred other grape varieties such as Aligoté, BlaufränkischChardonnay, Gamay, Knipperlé and Riesling with Heunisch/Gouais Blanc as parent. See also under Ancient Wines, Vine Systematics and a list of keywords relevant to grape varieties under Vine.

Grape varieties: M.I.P.A.A.F - National Vine Certification Service
Map: Derived from Sebastian Wallroth: Roman Provinces and Map of Europe, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

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