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Earliest-Known Commercial Winery Excavated in France

Languedoc winery, which shipped wines to other parts of the Roman empire, dates back to 10 A.D.

Lynn Alley
Posted: July 17, 2007

Early this month, it was announced that the remains of a commercial Roman winery dating back to 10 A.D. have been unearthed in a small village in the south of France. The find, initially discovered a little more than a year ago in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, is being acclaimed as that of France's earliest-known winery.

Located in the tiny village of Aspiran (pop. 1,100), near the town of Beziers, the winery appears to have been a thriving commercial concern established after the Romans first colonized southern France in 121 B.C. Archeologists believe that the proximity of the winery to the Mediterranean port of Agde enabled the winery's owner--believed to be an Italian merchant named Quintus Iulius Primus, based on inscriptions that have been found--to sell his wines throughout the western Roman Empire.

Although the area had originally been excavated in the 1970s when a large commercial pottery workshop dating from the Roman era was found, it had been abandoned for many years. Last year, Stéphane Mauné, an archeologist at France's Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique (CNRS) who specializes in the archeology of the Languedoc, discovered the remains of the winery.

Nicholas Hudson, an American post-doctorate student working at the site, explained that although the remains of the winery originally had been discovered more than a year ago, Mauné was not clear on the exact plan of the site and its original date of construction. "This summer," said Hudson, "they have uncovered more of the storage area and have clarified issues about the chronology and layout of the site."

Mauné believes that the winery primarily produced white wines. According to Mauné, at the end of the 19th century, amphorae made in the nearby pottery workshop and bearing the inscription, "I am a white wine from Beziers," were discovered in Italy. It is therefore believed that the wine was sold throughout the western Roman Empire.

The winery also probably produced red wines, Mauné said. "The diversity of amphorae made here indicates that the domaine produced both white and red wines, perhaps of several different grape varieties," he said. "They may have even produced aged wines, but this remains to be proven." Mauné added that the CNRS lab in Montpellier is currently analyzing grape seeds found at the site in hopes of discovering precisely which grape varieties might have been used to make the ancient wines.

To date, CNRS workers have unearthed the remains of the winery itself; giant "dolia," or jars, each capable of holding 1,200 to 1,800 liters of wine and a series of large indentations in which they were stored; traces of ramps for carts to carry grapes up to be crushed; and five different types of amphorae used to hold different varieties of wine. Scientists believe that at one time there were as many as 80 artisans and slaves working at the winery.

Today, the region still produces white wines, though is much better known for its reds.

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