The occasion was a visit to a most unusual winery, on the road about halfway between Arles and Nimes. There, alongside conventional, modern winemaking, the vintner is experimenting with ancient Latin texts to produce some delicious wines.
But back to that famous elixirWomen and slaves were forbidden from drinking Mulsum in ancient times. Now, however, now anyone traveling in the Gard - Bouche de Rhone areas can try some if this fountain of youth in a bottle. It is one of three ancient Roman wines, made according to recipes from original Latin texts, at the Mas des Tourelles, a Roman winery, or cella vinaria, about halfway between Nîmes and Arles.
There is something satisfyingly symmetrical about the fact that the Durand family, the owners, produce contemporary Costières de Nîmes, France’s newest appelation controlée, on a domain that has been a winery for at least at least 2,000 years.
Fragments of amphorae, the terra cotta vessels used by the Romans to ship and store wine, have long been surfacing among the Durand's vines and around their 17th century farmhouse beside an ancient Roman road, the Domitian Way.
From excavations to inspirationIn the 1980s, a French team of archaeologists began excavations. Subsequent digs, in the 1990s and again in 2002 revealed a Roman villa and a workshop with seven kilns capable of making 1,500 to 2,000 wine amphorae per day.
About ten years ago, inspired by the history of his family's property, Hervé Durand joined forces with André Tchernia and Jean-Pierre Brun, experts in archaeology and Roman viticulture, to reconstruct a Roman winery and, following ancient agricultural manuals and recorded recipes, produce authentic tasting Roman wines.
The exotic methods, described by Cato, Pliny the Elder and Lucius Columelle, involve adding plants, herbs and spices, defrutum (a concentrated grape juice) and even seawater to the juice of crushed grapes during vinification. Fenugreek, honey, quince, thyme and sage all go into the mixtures as they ferment in large, wide-mouthed, terra cotta jars buried in the earth.
Before tasting the results, visitors can wander in a Roman vineyard where vines are trained across pergolas and trellises, both apparently invented by the Romans to make harvesting easier; even earlier vintners had allowed the vines to grow up olive trees. Inside, the cella vinaria is dominated by a fearsome looking wine press levered by a whole oak tree trunk. Four strong men, turning an elaborate arrangement of cogs, pulleys and wheels, are needed to operate it.
The Roman HarvestYou can see it in operation during the Roman harvest and wine pressing -- the Vendange Romaine -- which takes place once a year, on the second Sunday in September. I missed it and had to be satisfied with a film complete with sheepish looking locals, dressed in Roman slave tunics, stomping on grapes. The film, which also documents the archaeological background of the enterprise, is shown year round --with an English narration on request.
The wines themselves are as unusual as the methods used to create them. Despite the quantities of flavorings added in the early stages of production, they are clear, with clean, well defined tastes.
Mulsum, also favored by the ancient Greeks, is dry with a flowery, honeyed scent. Turriculae, produced to an exact recipe of Lucius Columelle that includes seawater, is a strong yellow color, with notes of almonds and nuts that come from the addition of fenugreek. The complex taste is reminiscent of dry sherry. Amber-colored, fruity Carenum, is made by fermenting very mature grapes with quince. It was a festival wine in ancient Rome and has a sweet, peachy aroma.
Worth going out of your wayThe three wines are made in small quantities and, at the moment, are only available from the Mas des Tourelles shop, where regional products and the domain's hard to find Costières de Nîmes are also for sale.
If you are touring the area, or stopping over on a cruise (it's about an hour and a half from the cruise ports of Marseille), the Mas des Tourelles, is worth visiting for its Roman winery as well as its modern wines. The Mas is on the D38, Rte. de Bellegarde, southwest of Beaucaire. From Nimes, take the N113 South, (from Arles the N113 North) at Bellegarde, follow the D38 toward Beaucaire. The journey shouldn't take more than 20 minutes from Nimes, Arles or Beaucaire.
Opening times vary throughout the year but the winery closes every day for the long French lunch hour, from noon to 2 p.m. From November through March opening hours are limited to Saturday, 2 to 6 p.m.