Roman Wine Tasting

Text by Peter Tatford
Photos by Shawn Hennessey

As all you erudite folks probably already know, Seville was in antiquity a Roman city, probably the most important in Western Europe outside of Italy itself. It’s official name from the time of Julius Caesar was “Julia Romana”, but as often happens it was the city’s older name, Hispalis, which remained in popular use, and is preserved in altered form in the modern name. It was an important trading, manufacturing and administrative centre with extensive commercial links with Rome, exporting wine, oil and fish products back to the Imperial capital.

baetica wines

But what was daily life like in Hispalis during the six centuries of Roman domination? Recently my friend Shawn @azaharSevilla and I were lucky enough to be invited to a rather special wine tasting event at Gastrosol, atop the Metropol Parasol. It was put on by the people responsible for Cotidiana Vitae (Daily Life) at Italica, the well-preserved Roman residential city at Santiponce, just outside Seville. Roman wines were provided by Baetica, who have done excellent work in recreating the styles of wines that would have been drunk in those far off times, drawing on the knowledge of winemakers, historians and archaeologists to make them as authentic as possible.

First though, it was down into the basement for a tour of the Roman ruins discovered when work to redevelop the site of the old market in Plaza Encarnación began back in the nineties. The ruins are now a well restored and preserved archaeology museum with some fascinating things to see. These include a fish salting plant that must have been a smelly neighbour for the residents, a house with an unusual (to me at least) raised platform for dining set into a semi-circular alcove, restored mosaics, and some crude gaming tables, as well as glimpses of the stratification (new bits built over old bits) of the site as it developed.

antequarium tour

Then it was time to go upstairs for the wine tasting. Our hosts, Manuel León Béjar and Alejandro Vera had chosen four wines for us to sample, Mulsum (fermented with honey), Sanguis (steeped with rose petals), Antinoo (steeped with violets), and Mesalina (flavoured with cinnamon, and named for the wife of the Emperor Claudius), which became very popular in the later Roman Empire. It’s not really known how close these are to the Roman originals, especially as many of the old grape varieties have sadly disappeared, but extensive research into the wine making techniques of the time and descriptions of the grapes that were used gives us considerable confidence, and the use of the various flavourings is well attested to by writers and commentators of the time.

roman wine tasting

Now, I have to admit that I’m not really a wine expert, so for proper tasting notes and pairings I’m going to send you over to these good people (the notes are in Spanish), but I will say that it was a fascinating experience, and that the wines were quite distinctive compared to modern ones. My favourites were the Mulsum, which did have a definite tang of honey without being overly sweet, and the Mesalina, which was the most intensely flavoured, and was apparently mainly used at the end of, or even after, the meal. Maybe next time we’ll get a complete Roman banquet, though I’m still not convinced about the advantages of eating lying down.

For more information about activities at Italica, including tasting events, you can visit the Cotidiana Vitae website.

Festival of the Virgen de Los Reyes

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – Seville is big on Virgins. And on August 15 it’s the turn of Seville’s very own Our Lady the Virgin of the Kings, the official patroness of the city.

The stories of the origins of the image, whose actual sculptor is unknown, are a mix of history and legend. According to some she was carved by the angels and after being found by Ferdinand III, accompanied him throughout the reconquest of this part of Spain from the Moors. More prosaically, it is said that the king saw her in a vision, and that the image was made on his orders. Another story is that she was a gift from Ferdinand’s cousin, Louis IX of France. Since the 16th century she has “lived” in the Royal Chapel in the Cathedral.

The celebrations officially extend from August 4 to 22, with special services in the cathedral and viewing of the Virgin, but the highlight is the triumphal procession on August 15, the day of the Ascension of the Virgin Mary. The route is short, the procession leaving the cathedral by the gate in the plaza, and doing a single anti-clockwise circuit of the cathedral before entering again by the same gate. It starts early, too, at around 8am, but it’s worth missing your lie-in to go and watch.

The procession is accompanied by many local church and civic dignitaries, a brass band, the pealing of the church bells, and large crowds in the square and surrounding streets. Nowhere does religious processions better than Seville, and the procession of the city’s patron Saint is no exception.

Seville | Don Juan

After Cervantes knight errant Don Quixote, Spain’s most famous literary figure is surely Don Juan de Tenorio. The protagonist of countless poems, books and most famously of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, he is normally portrayed as a heartless womaniser and bragadoccio, and it as a notorious libertine that his name has passed into the popular imagination. In most versions of the story he comes to a much-deserved bad ending, being dragged away to hell by the statue of the father of one of the women he had tried to seduce, who he had killed in a duel.

But was there ever any such person? The Don is often said to be modelled on the historical Miguel de Mañara (1627-1679), and both his birthplace in Calle Levies and the Charity Hospital La Caridad, where as senior brother he made his name for charitable work among the city’s poor, feature in Seville City of Opera’s Ruta de Don Juan. However, since Tirso Molina’s The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest, the first known literary work about Don Juan, appeared in 1630, when Mañara was just three years old, this connection has to be dismissed as a later fancy, possibly intended to discredit the brotherhood.

don juanStatue of Don Juan in the Plaza de los Refinadores

There is a more likely candidate. In the 14th century a prominent noble family with the name de Tenorio lived in Seville (their house was on the site of what is now the Convento de San Leandro). During the reign of Pedro I “The Cruel” one Juan de Tenorio supported Henry of Trastámara in his bid to seize the throne, but was discovered and forced to flee. Beyond the name, there is nothing to suggest that the later stories were based on the personality or activities of the original, though they may have been intended to blacken the name of an opponent of the king, and to be a morality tale of the consequences disloyalty.

Beyond doubt, though, the character of Don Juan is Sevillano through and through. The connection is celebrated with a commemorative statue erected in 1975 in the Plaza de los Refinadores. The Hostería del Laurel, which features in Zorrilla’s 1844 play, is in the Plaza Venerables, and nearby is the Plaza Doña Elvira, named for the only woman who truly loved him. In some versions she is called Doña Ines de Ulloa, and a family of that name is known to have lived in the Plaza in the 16th century. The tomb of the original Don Juan is said to have been in the Franciscan Monastery, which formerly occupied what is now the Plaza Nueva.

Spanish Charm – the Plazas of Santa Cruz

Plaza Virgen de los Reyes The Plaza Virgen de los Reyes, or Virgin of the kings, is the beautiful and iconic square between the Cathedral and the Barrio Santa Cruz. In the centre is the fountain designed and built for the 1929 Spanish-American exhibition, surmounted by an ornamental farola (street light), and its periphery is formed by three of Seville’s most important historic buildings, the cathedral (including the Giralda tower), the Archbishop’s Palace and the Convent of the Incarnation. Although these buildings are much older, the square itself was only created at the end of the 18th century by the demolition of administrative buildings belonging to the Church, and has only had its modern form since the remodelling of its eastern side for the widening of Calle Mateos Gago in the 1920s. Enjoy the view and the comings and goings of the horsedrawn carriages from one of the benches in the shade of the orange trees.

Plaza Virgen de los Reyes

Plaza Santa Marta Santa Marta is the little square next to Virgen de los Reyes, reached by way of the little alley behind the statue of the Pope. Even though it’s so close to one of the busiest places in the city it’s a little oasis of peace and quiet. The cross in the centre dates to 1564, but was only placed here in the early 20th century. The door to the right is the entrance to the Monastery of the Incarnation.

Plaza Santa Marta

Plaza del Triunfo Alongside Virgen de los Reyes is the Plaza del Triunfo, surrounded by Seville’s three world heritage sites, the Cathedral, the Alcázar Palace and the Archivos de Indias, as well as the Casa de la Provincia. The small monument in front of the Archivos, which gives the square its name, celebrates the safe completion of the mass that was interrupted by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, whose effects were also felt in Seville. The modern appearance of the square, including the statue of the Immacualate Conception, whose steps are a popular gathering place, dates back to the early twentieth century.

Plaza del Triunfo

Patio de Banderas Going through the archway beside the square brings you to the Patio de Banderas (Flags), where the Kings of Spain once greeted foreign ambassadors. Notable for its rectangular promenade formed by two rows of orange trees, and its fountain, it was recently the site of archaeological investigations which brought to light some of the earliest stages of the Palace’s history.

Patio de Banderas

Plaza de la Alianza This charming little square with a length of the old wall on one side and a simple central fountain, was once called the Plaza del Pozo Seco (the dry well).

Plaza de la Alianza

Plaza Doña Elvira Possibly the most picturesque little square in Seville, and one of the most frequented by tourists, it’s supposedly the birthplace of Doña Elvira, the impossible love of Don Juan. The square was actually created as part of the redevelopment of the barrio for the Spanish-American exhibition, and owes much of its beauty to the symmetry of its orange trees, ceramic benches and central fountain.

Plaza Doña Elvira

Plaza Alfaro Plaza Alfaro is the little square at the entrance to the Murillo Gardens. Look for the Moreton Bay fig trees just inside, the water pipes in the exposed end of the old wall, and the ornate entrance to the Casa Palacio de la Marquesa de Pickman a few steps up Calle Lope de Rueda.

Plaza Alfaro

Plaza Santa Cruz Once the site of one the Jewish quarter’s three synagogues, and after the pogrom of 1391 of the parish church of Santa Cruz, the square was created by its demolition by Napoleon in 1811. The church was the burial place of the artist Bartolomé Murillo, as attested by the plaque in one corner of the square. The rather strange metal structure in the centre is the Cruz de la Cerrajería, once located at the corner of Calle Sierpes and Calle Cerrajería, and moved here in 1921. Notice the serpents and the little figures on the top corners.

Plaza Santa Cruz

Plaza de los Refinadores Los Refinadores (the refiners) is another of the charming squares that are such a feature of the Santa Cruz. The circular benches around the five palm trees make a quiet and shady spot for a few minutes tranquil contemplation. The statue is of the legendary Don Juan Tenorio, and was erected in 1975. Also of interest is the Casa para Luis Prieto, which is the one on the corner with the big glassed-in balcony, designed by Aníbal González, who also designed the Plaza de España.

Plaza de los Refinadores