Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Wine Lover's Guide to Ancient Britain Volume 53 Number 2, March/April 2000
by Angela M.H. Schuster

Aerial photography, remote sensing, and large-scale excavation have revealed the remains of Romano-British vineyards in eastern and southeastern England, suggesting that the island produced its own wine 1,600 years ago. To date, a team led by Ian Meadows of Northamptonshire County Council and Tony Brown of Exeter University's School of Geography and Archaeology has identified the remains of seven vineyards--one in Cambridgeshire, one in Lincolnshire, one in Buckinghamshire, and four in Northamptonshire.

"It is clear that the Romans concentrated their wine-making efforts in Northamptonshire's Nene Valley, near the village of Wollaston," says Brown, "where we found ancient vineyards covering nearly 30 acres." In Roman times, Britain had a slightly warmer climate than it has today. With 19 to 24 inches of annual rainfall, the Northamptonshire region was at the low end of the British precipitation range, which would have posed few fungal problems. The area's rich, limy soils also made it ideal for grape production.

At one Northamptonshire site, the team documented remains of nearly four miles of bedding trenches that they estimate could have supported some 4,000 vines, the fruits of which would have yielded more than 2,600 gallons of wine a year. According to Meadows and Brown, the grapes were grown in the Mediterranean Roman style, that is between parallel sets of poles, a manner that has been described in detail by classical authors such as Pliny the Elder and Columella.

Most of the wines the Romans produced were probably fruity, sweet, and brownish in color. The grapes would have been harvested early, before they were fully ripe, around late September. After pressing, large amounts of honey would have been added to the wine for both sweetness and to raise the alcohol content to ten or 12 percent. The wine would then have been placed in amphoras or barrels to ferment for about six months, ready for enjoyment in late winter or early spring.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America