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.

Roman Seville

Roman pillars - Alameda de Hercules
Roman pillars – Alameda de Hercules

The Romans first came to this part of Spain in the late 3rd century when they defeated the Carthaginians and occupied the little city of Seville. Under Roman rule Seville grew rapidly in size and importance, so that by the time of Julius Caesar it occupied a large part of what is now the Casco Antiguo. He is regarded as one of the founders of the city because he built the first stone walls around it, and though these are long gone, the later Moorish walls followed the same course for much of their route.

In fact, although Seville (then known as Hispalis) was one of the great cities of Roman Spain, there are relatively few known physical remains from that period of the city’s history.

Doubtless there are plenty of potential archaeological discoveries still lurking beneath the streets and houses of the modern-day city.

Just outside the city centre, in Calle Luis Montoto, are two surviving sections of the aqueduct that supplied water to the city (there is a third beyond the shopping centre at Los Arcos). The original source of the water was near the modern village of Los Cercadillos de la Huerta de Santa Lucía, about 17km outside the city in the direction of Carmona, though only the last 4km of the channel was on an aqueduct. Most surprising is that the aqueduct did not disappear simply as a result of the passage of time, but was demolished in the early 20th century in an act of civic vandalism.

Hidden away in Calle Marmoles (Marbles street) in the Barrio Santa Cuz are three enormous pillars that are all that remains of a Roman temple, probably to the goddess Diana. The footings of the pillars appear to be sunk in a deep pit, but in fact it is the level of the ground around them that has risen over the centuries. Two more pillars were moved to the newly created Alameda de Hercules in the 16th century, and now stand at its western end, topped by statues of the city’s founders, Hercules and Julius Caesar. A sixth pillar is known to have been broken at this time as a result of attempts to move it.

Aljibe Romano - Plaza de la Pescadería
Aljibe Romano – Plaza de la Pescadería

Even more hidden away is the aljibe, or water cistern under the Plaza de la Pescadería. It’s still in a good state of preservation, but isn’t normally open to the public. It’s theoretically possible to look down into the structure through the “skylights” in the square, but in practice it’s either too dark, or there’s too much light reflecting off the glass.

Definitely worth visiting is the Antiquarium, the museum and archaeological site under the Metropol Parasols in Plaza de la Encarnación, featuring Roman and post Roman ruins, including some well-preserved mosaics. The remains were discovered when work began on an underground carpark for the planned new market building in the square.

There are also Roman remains in the lower levels of the archaeological excavations in the Patio de Banderas, and Roman stones with inscriptions that were reused in the foundations of the Giralda tower. There is also known to be a Roman bath house under the foundations of the Archbishop’s Palace.

Roman objects and mosaics, mostly from nearby Italica, can also be found at the Archaeological museum in María Luisa Park, and in the Palacio de Lebrija in Calle Cuna.