Viticulture in ancient Carnuntum

Wine, in the strictest sense, is obtained from the cultivated grape vine vitis vinifera. According to the current state of research, the transition from wild growth to domestic vine occurred some 5000 years B.C. In the second century B.C., viticulture and winemaking spread from the Near East via Crete and Greece to northern Italy. Aside from this, the Greeks took viticulture and winemaking over the seas to southern Italy, Spain, northern Africa and the south of France. Greeks and Etruscans then conveyed wine and its culture to western-, middle- and northern Europe during the La Tène period. Initially as trade goods, wine and the vessels preferred for enjoying its consumption were imported from the Mediterranean region. There is archaeological evidence regarding the beginnings of viticulture in the Pannonian area dating from the 1st century B.C.

Within the realm of farming and animal husbandry, wine production was by far the most profitable line of business for the ancient Romans. The dissemination of winemaking to the north, however, demanded different technical approaches than were appropriate to Mediterranean wine production. Since the domestic vines here were constantly beset with hostile climate-conditions (particularly frost), growing grapes along the Danube required a far greater outlay of energy and labour than was the case in Italy.

The emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus (276 – 282 A.D.) is typically regarded as the patriarch of wine culture in the region. In fact, he introduced legislation affecting viticulture that greatly eased previously existing restrictions in the northern and western provinces.

It is not possible to make any exact pronouncements regarding the individual grape varieties that were grown in ancient Carnuntum. Most likely is that white and red varieties (vinum album and vinum atrum) were grown side-by-side. During the grape harvest, the fully ripened clusters were picked by hand, or cut off with a grape-knife and collected in baskets. Many such pruning knives made of iron have been found in Carnuntum, and are on display in the Archaeological Museum Carnuntinum in Bad Deutsch-Altenburg.

Various other tools that were employed in working the vines, such as spades and double-bladed mattocks have been preserved in Carnuntum. The best grapes were sorted out as table grapes, and sold in markets. The greater part of the wine grapes were collected in large tubs and transported to the cellarhouses, where they were trodden by perhaps several men with their naked feet. This practice was known as ‘calcare’ in Latin (treading), which has given the German language its lovely loan word ‘keltern,’ the process by which man makes the grape into wine – and course attention was paid to appropriate hygiene in the fermentation vats. The third step, so to speak, involved squeezing the trodden grapes in a press. After treading and pressing, the musts were decanted into plump fermentation vats made of clay, which were sealed with a flat lid with handles before being buried in the courtyard or in the cellar. In the Alpine region and in Pannonia, wooden casks were frequently used. 

In springtime the wine was then re-vatted in amphoras. These were then stoppered with a clay plug and sealed with wax or pitch, which generally provided an airtight closure. Stoppers made from the bark of the cork oak tree were utilised with increasing frequency starting in the 1st century B.C. Amphoras and storage pitchers customarily bore painted-on labels, with information regarding the type of wine and the consular year in which the wine had been made.

Since wine was one of the basic foodstuffs for all segments of society, it became one of the Roman Empire’s primary trade goods. The trade was conducted by wine merchants, many of whom we know by name thanks to inscriptions on the vessels. Where possible, wine was transported by ship, or if not possible, then by land. This is confirmed by impressive depictions on stone memorials, where ships, wagons and carts laden with wine can be seen.

Weinbau im antiken Carnuntum © Archäologischer Park Carnuntum