The Oldest Unopened Bottle of Wine in the World (Circa 350 AD)

Image by Immanuel Giel, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

It’s an old TV and movie trope: the man of wealth and taste, often but not always a supervil­lain, offers his dis­tin­guished guest a bot­tle of wine, his finest, an ancient vin­tage from one of the most ven­er­a­ble vine­yards. We might fol­low the motif back at least to Edgar Allan Poe, whose “Cask of Amon­til­la­do” puts an espe­cial­ly devi­ous spin on the trea­sured bottle’s sin­is­ter con­no­ta­tions.

If our suave and pos­si­bly dead­ly host were to offer us the bot­tle you see here, we might hard­ly believe it, and would hard­ly be keen to drink it, though not for fear of being mur­dered after­ward. The Römer­wein, or Spey­er wine bottle—so called after the Ger­man region where it was dis­cov­ered in the exca­va­tion of a 4th cen­tu­ry AD Roman nobleman’s tomb—dates “back to between 325 and 359 AD,” writes Aban­doned Spaces, and has the dis­tinc­tion of being “the old­est known wine bot­tle which remains unopened.”

A 1.5 liter “glass ves­sel with ampho­ra-like stur­dy shoul­ders” in the shape of dol­phins, the bot­tle is of no use to its own­er, but no one is cer­tain what would hap­pen to the liq­uid if it were exposed to air, so it stays sealed, its thick stop­per of wax and olive oil main­tain­ing an impres­sive­ly her­met­ic envi­ron­ment. Sci­en­tists can only spec­u­late that the liq­uid inside has prob­a­bly lost most of its ethanol con­tent. But the bot­tle still con­tains a good amount of wine, “dilut­ed with a mix of var­i­ous herbs.”

The Römer­wein resides at the His­tor­i­cal Muse­um of the Palati­nate in Spey­er, which seems like an incred­i­bly fas­ci­nat­ing place if you hap­pen to be pass­ing through. You won’t get to taste ancient Roman wine there, but you may, per­haps, if you trav­el to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cata­nia in Sici­ly where in 2013, sci­en­tists recre­at­ed ancient wine-mak­ing tech­niques, set up a vine­yard, and fol­lowed the old ways to the let­ter, using wood­en tools and strips of cane to tie their vines.

They pro­ceed­ed, writes Tom Kingston at The Guardian, “with­out mech­a­niza­tion, pes­ti­cides or fer­til­iz­ers.” Only the organ­ic stuff for Roman vint­ners.

The team has faith­ful­ly fol­lowed tips on wine grow­ing giv­en by Vir­gil in the Geor­gics, his poem about agri­cul­ture, as well as by Col­umel­la, a first cen­tu­ry AD grow­er, whose detailed guide to wine­mak­ing was relied on until the 17th cen­tu­ry.

Those ancient wine­mak­ers added hon­ey and water to their wine, as well as herbs, to sweet­en and spice things up. And unlike most Ital­ians today who “drink mod­er­ate­ly with meals,” ancient Romans “were more giv­en to drunk­en carous­ing.” Maybe that’s what the gen­tle­man in the Spey­er tomb hoped to be doing in his Roman after­life.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Bake Ancient Roman Bread Dat­ing Back to 79 AD: A Video Primer

How Did the Romans Make Con­crete That Lasts Longer Than Mod­ern Con­crete? The Mys­tery Final­ly Solved

Rome Reborn: Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Ancient Rome, Cir­ca 320 C.E.

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • phil says:

    ” a good amount of wine, “dilut­ed with a mix of var­i­ous herbs.” Ah it’s one of those. Some­one got hold of some cheapo wine and had a go at the old “mak­ing a wine and herb drink”.
    Prob­a­bly the same type of peo­ple who made their own soap and all their friends had to gri­mace at it and try to find ways of look­ing pleased when they got a lump of the scratchy stuff for xmas. :)

    No won­der it was nev­er drunk!

  • phil says:

    if i’ve already said it then why has­n’t the com­ment appeared . Why does it still say 0 com­ments. if they aren’t post­ed until mod­er­a­tion then SAY SO!! we aren’t mind read­ers.

  • Zang says:

    This is ter­ri­ble.

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