Roman Wine – Vintage 1st Century B.C.

A Roman cargo ship dating to the 1st century B.C. carrying 300 wine amphoras has been found off Albania’s coast. The 98 foot long ship is well preserved, however despite most of the amphoras being unbroken the wine has long since disappeared as the seals had perished.

The wine is thought to have been the produce of southern Albanian vineyards en route to western European markets, including France. A statement from the Key West, Florida-based RPM Nautical Foundation said the find was made 50 metres deep near the port city of Vlora, 90 miles south west of the capital, Tirana.

The Foundation, in cooperation with Albanian archaeologists, has been surveying a swathe of Albania’s previously unexplored coastal waters for the past five years. So far, experts have located 20 shipwrecks – including several relatively modern ones.

“Taking into consideration the date and also the depth – which is well suited for excavation – I would include it among the top 10 most scientifically interesting wrecks found in the Mediterranean,” said Albanian archaeologist Adrian Anastasi, who participated in the project.

Archaeologist Jeff Royal, of the RPM Nautical Foundation, said: “Thus far nine ancient wrecks have been discovered in Montenegro and eight in Albania that span the period of the 6th century B.C. through the 4th century A.D.”

According to Royal, three of the shipwrecks discovered this season are associated with a flourishing wine trade industry in what is now central Croatia. The trade developed shortly after the Roman entry into Ancient Illyria, a region in the western part of the Balkan Peninsula.

At its height Ancient Illyria encompassed the Adriatic coastline and mountainous interior of the western Balkans (Albania, Slovenia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia) including at one point the region of Molossa (Epirus) in the north west of Greece.

Ancient Illyria was a major source of supply for the western Mediterranean, including present day France and Spain.

“Large cargoes of these amphoras were shipped down the eastern Adriatic coast from Croatia, along the modern Montenegrin and Albanian coasts to about Vlore where most traversed westward and rounded Italy into the western Mediterranean” Royal said.

The eminent specialist in wine geology Henri Enjalbert (1910 – 1983) has argued that Albania, the Ionian Islands of Greece, and southern Dalmatia may have been the last European refuge of the grape vine after the Ice Age.

Interestingly Croatia is the home of the Gouais Blanc grape variety – which is the mother of Chardonnay. It’s believed that Gouais Blanc may have been given to the Gauls by Probus (Roman Emperor 276–282), who was from Pannonia and overturned Domitian’s decree banning grape growing north of the Alps.

Zinfandel also has its origins in Croatia where it is known as Crljenak Kaštelanski. The arrival of Zinfandel in the United States may have been via the Imperial Nursery in Vienna, Austria, which likely obtained the vines during the Habsburg Monarchy’s rule over Croatia, which was expanded when Austria acquired the Dalmatian territories of the former Republic of Venice in 1797.

The sites will be left unexplored, and the retrieved jars restored to the wrecks, until local archaeologists will be in a position to carry out the excavations. I wonder if they will ever be able to discern what wines the amphoras held? It would be fascinating to know whether the Romans were drinking Zinfandel!

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