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Wine Critics - Everything Old Is New Again

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Co-authored by Michael Fontaine, Associate Professor of Classics at Cornell University

Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast - these are just a few of the publications that guide consumers in their bottle selections. But while the wines reviewed are of a more modern vintage, the ideas discussed have been around almost as long as wine has.

Several writers, including Pliny the Elder, wrote about wine in the early days of the Roman Empire, more than 2,000 years ago. Pliny is most famous for his encyclopedic work Natural History, which in a mere 37 books covers a wide range of material including the modern-day hot topics of terroir, vintages, and wine rankings.

Terroir is the sense of place expressed in a wine. Think soil, climate, and other factors that would affect how a vine would grow. Pliny didn't introduce the concept of terroir - that credit is usually given to the agricultural writer Columella - but he did write intensively on the topic.

After climate, the next task is to discuss the influence of the earth (terra), a subject no easier to deal with... Even the black soil found in Campania is not the best for vines everywhere, nor is the red soil that so many writers praise. People prefer the chalky soil in the territory of Alba Pompeia...

Terra -- Pliny's word for earth or soil -- corresponds closely to the sense of terroir found in many traditional winegrowing countries. To illustrate the idea, Pliny gives two examples of Italian wines:

The wines of Pucinum get cooked on top of rock, while the vines of Caecubum grow in the waters of the Pomptine marshes; this shows the great variety and diversity that experience has discovered in the various soils.

As is common now, wine critics disagreed in ancient Rome. Both Pliny and Columella praised Caecuban, but the Emperor Tiberius compared it to vinegar. When Pliny disliked a wine, he used imagery that is often found in reviews today:

The wine produced (nascitur) at Signia--useful as an astringent because it is just too harsh--counts as a medicine.

It's important to note that Pliny's original rankings were vineyards (in the Burgundy "Grand Cru" style) rather than wineries (as is currently practiced for the Bordeaux classifications). He is often credited with creating the term "first growth" (the top classification for Bordeaux chateaux):

First place (principatus) is given to the vines of Aminea on account of the body and life of their wine, which undoubtedly improves with old age.

Principatus means "first, first place, pride of place." Pliny demonstrates his reverence for vineyards by saying that wines nascitur, a word that means literally "grow" or "are born" (as in the English words nascent, prenatal, and nature).

The Pramnian wine, too, which Homer has also similarly eulogized, still retains its ancient fame: it is grown (nascitur) in the region of Smyrna [Izmir].

Interestingly, Pliny never wrote about winemakers. With this omission, Pliny again signifies a more traditional view that wine is grown (nascitur) rather than made.

Pliny wrote about the effects of vintage on wines, and in particular provided a great deal of information about a particular vintage of the year 121 BC:

A famous year was the consulship of Lucius Opimius, when the weather shone so temperately through the sun's power (the "cooking") that the growth of every wine was outstanding. It was the 633rd year since the founding of Rome. Wines from that vintage are still preserved, nearly two hundred years on...

Today, the term "Opimian" - in reference to the year of the consulship of Opimius - is still used occasionally to describe a truly superb wine. What Pliny tells us about the Opimian vintage helps us recognize that wine counterfeiting is not a new problem. In an ancient Roman novel called Satyricon which is set in Pliny's own time, two men attend a dinner party of a nouveau riche billionaire where they are served a wine labeled "Falernian, Consul Opimius, One Hundred Years Old". Thanks to Pliny, we know that the label has got to be a fake as the math doesn't work out.

The falsification of wine labels was probably widespread in Rome. The misrepresentation of a wine's age certainly was. These are two issues that plague the fine wine market today.

One point Pliny emphasizes is a message we seldom hear from modern wine writers:

...Regarding rankings, each individual should make him- or herself the judge.

This advice about personal preferences-- "each individual should make him- or herself the judge" of a wine - still rings true almost 2,000 years later. Pliny also said:

There is truth in wine (in vino veritas)

Unfortunately that doesn't mean there is always truth in wine reviews. Despite what wine writers often suggest, you don't need to spend a lot on a bottle of wine or appreciate Burgundian Pinot noir to be a wine lover. Ignore the critics and drink what you like.