Making Wine, the Roman Way (Cato 6)

A wall painting from the House of Julia Felix in Pompeii, now housed in the Naples Museum.

Recently I have been providing modern translations of some selected passages from Cato’s De Agri Cultura.  The following quotes are from the section of the book concerning winemaking.  Please see below for further explanation of this series of articles, and also a few notes about measurements used.

Wine for the farm hands to drink through the winter:

Pour into a jar 10 quadrantals of must*, 2 quadrantals of sharp vinegar, 2 quadrantals of boiled must, 50 quadrantals of fresh water. Stir with a stick three times a day, for five consecutive days. Then add 64 pints of old sea-water, cover the jar, and seal ten days later. This wine will last you until the summer solstice. Whatever is left over after the solstice will be a very sharp and excellent vinegar.

If your farm is far from the sea you can use this recipe for Greek wine:

Pour 20 quadrantals of must into a copper or lead boiler, and heat. As soon as the wine boils, remove the fire. When the wine has cooled, pour into a jar holding 40 quadrantals. Pour one modius of salt and one quadrantal of fresh water into a separate vessel, and wait for a brine to form. When the brine is ready pour it into the jar. Crush rushes and calamus** in a mortar to make a sufficient quantity, and pour one pint into the jar to give it an odour. Thirty days later seal the jar, and decant into amphorae in the spring. Stand it in the sun for two years, then bring it under cover. This wine will not be inferior to Coan wine [see below].

Preparation of sea-water:

Take one quadrantal of water from the deep sea, away from fresh water; dry 1½ pounds of salt, add it, and stir with a rod until a boiled hen’s egg will float.  Then stop stirring.  Add 12 pints of old wine, either Aminnian or ordinary white wine, and after mixing thoroughly pour into a pitched jar and seal.  If you wish to make a larger quantity of sea-water, use a proportionate amount of the same ingredients…

If you want to find out whether wine will keep or not:

Place in a new vessel half an acetabulum of large pearl barley and a pint of the wine you wish to test. Place it on the coals and bring it to boil two or three times. Then strain, throw away the barley, and place the wine in the open. Taste it the next morning. If it is sweet, you will know that the wine in the jar will keep, but if it is slightly acid it will not…

To remove a bad odour from wine:

Heat a thick, clean piece of roofing-tile thoroughly in the fire. When it is hot, coat it with pitch, attach a string, lower it gently to the bottom of the jar of wine, and leave the jar sealed for two days. If the bad odour is removed the first time, that will be ideal.  If not, repeat until the bad odour is removed.

If you wish to determine whether wine has been watered down or not:

Make a vessel of ivy wood and pour into it some of the wine you think has been watered down. If it contains water, the wine will soak through and the water will remain, because a vessel of ivy wood will not hold wine.

Recipe for Coan wine:

Collect sea-water at a distance from the shore, far from fresh water, when the sea is calm and the wind is not blowing, seventy days before vintage.  After collecting it from the sea, pour into a jar, not filling it fully, but to within five quadrantals of the top. Cover the jar, leaving room for air, and thirty days later pour it slowly and carefully into another jar, leaving the sediment in the bottom.  Twenty days later pour it into a third jar in the same manner, and leave until vintage.  Leave the grapes from which you intend to make the Coan wine on the vine, let them ripen thoroughly, and pick them when they have dried after a rain.  Place them in the sun for two days, or in the open for three days, unless it is raining, in which case put them under cover in baskets.  Clear out any grapes which have rotted.  Then take the sea-water and pour 10 quadrantals into a jar that will hold 50.  Then pick the grapes from their stems, placing them into the jar until you have filled it.  Press the grapes by hand so they will soak in the sea-water.  When the jar is full, cover it, leaving room for air, and three days later remove the grapes from the jar, tread out the wine in the pressing-room, and store it in jars which have been washed clean and dried.

* “Must” is the first stage in making wine: the freshly crushed grape juice, including all the skins and seeds.

** Calamus is a wetland plant (as are rushes of course!)

A note about measurements. A “quadrantal” is about 55 pints. I have not used conversion for this extract, to avoid the measurements becoming clumsy. Similarly, a “modius” is about 16 dry pints, or 9 litres and an “acetabulum” is about 70 millilitres. I have, however, used “pints” in place of “sextarii”, as the measurement is almost equivalent, and 6 pints instead of “congii”.

An explanation of this project:

The first Roman prose writer of any importance was Cato the Elder (234-149BC). Like many early writers in Latin, little of his work survives, and only one complete book: Agriculture (De Agri Cultura). The book gives advice about how to run a farm, and is a fascinating insight into rural life at the time.

I realise that Roman writing can have a reputation for being a rather dry subject for those who never had their enthusiasm sparked by Latin, and I would lay the fault with that firmly at the door of the translations. Rome was a vibrant, exciting society and that was reflected in their writing, but I remember when studying Latin finding the obsession in academia with accurately translating everything word for word frustrating. I can see the necessity for that approach from an academic point of view, but if the end result is a piece of hackneyed, stuffy prose, then you have actually produced something that is a million miles away from the original, despite including all the right words. For the general reader, I think Latin needs to be translated a little more loosely: get the meaning across without copying every aspect of the sentence structure. So I am attempting more modern translations, working with the original Latin text and with reference where necessary to translations from Fairfax Harrison (1913) and Hooper and Ash (1934).

Starting with Cato, let’s look at what he wrote, but with the translation tidied up into a much more natural form of English. Let’s render the work back to a natural prose, the manner in which it would originally have been enjoyed. I’m not going to take any huge liberties with the original material, just give it a bit of a spruce up.  Let’s see what Cato really had to say.

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About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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