Part 2: Cellars, Cross-contamination, and Fermentation (Pliny the Elder 14.49[27])

Picari oportere protinus a canis ortu, postea perfundi marina aqua aut salsa, dein cinere e sarmentis aspergi vel argilla, abstersa murra suffiri ipsasque saepius cellas. inbecilla vina demissis in terram doliis servanda, valida expositis. numquam inplenda [. . .] aperiri vetant nisi sereno die, vetant austro flante lunave plena. flos vini candidus probatur; rubens triste signum esse, si non vini colos sit, item vasa incalescentia operculave sudantia. quod celeriter florere coeperit odoremque trahere, non fore diutinum.

It also fitting to add pitch to the vessel immediately following the rising of the Dog Star [mid-summer], and, after, to wash the vessels thoroughly with marine or salt water, sprinkle in ashes from wood or potters earth, and then perfume the vessel by wiping in myrrh, which should also be used to perfume the cellar itself. Weak wines should be saved in dolia (vessels) sunk in the ground; the stronger ones exposed [to the air]. The dolia should never be filled [to the brim] (. . . so that there is room for adjuncts . . .). They forbid the vessels to be open unless it is a calm day – certainly not when the south wind blows or during a full moon. The shining flower of the wine [i.e. a pellicle] is very good thing; a red color is a bad sign unless that is the color of the wine itself, and the vessels should be warm and giving off moisture. If the wine quickly “flowers” and gives off an odor, it will not keep.

Commentary
This is a continuation of last week’s passage that describes wine and wine-storage in the Roman period. By understanding ancient practices associated with that fermented beverage, we can gain insight into the possible processes that might have been used for beer production in antiquity.

First, Pliny describes a multi-step treatment of the wine storage vessels that includes the use of pitch, rinsing with salt-water, adding ash or potter’s earth, and perfuming the vessel and cellar with myrrh. This process seems like a method that helped to stave off infection and preserve the wine for the duration of its aging and storage. Although I do not have a clear scientific understanding of its efficacy, this process would likely have been at least somewhat successful as a cleaning method. Lye and natural soaps, for instance, can be made from wood ash. Myrrh also has some antibacterial qualities and has been used in traditional medicines for preservation and the treatment of infections.

I wonder if such treatment of the vessels indicates that the ancient Romans were not spontaneously fermenting their wine with the microbes living in the nooks and crannies of the vessels itself. It also shows that the ancients, too, practiced, a contemporary brewer’s mantra – sanitation, sanitation, sanitation! Such methods would have certainly been important for the Spanish brewers, for instance, who are reported to have aged their beers (1).

Despite the best efforts of the winemakers, infections were unavoidable. Pliny suggests that the producers examine the pellicle [flos vini] that formed on the surface of the wine to judge the viability of the drink. Pellicles are formed during the aging when the liquid is inoculated with various microbes and exposed to oxygen (for a comprehensive description: Milk the Funk wiki). For Pliny, a white or brilliant pellicle is taken as a good sign that the wine has not become infected. The appearance of red pellicle, however, suggests that the wine will spoil. One should also be attentive to the smell of the wine and the rate at which the pellicle forms. All this suggests that the ancient wines, too, might have had a bit of “funk” or sourness to them.

Image Source
“Pellicle” – BCS

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