Nobody comes to Rome for the wine. They may have done, once: Vigna Stelluti and Vigna Clara are northern suburbs but their names sketch the shape of ghostly grape clusters, although I have no idea whether the vines that grew there made anything worth drinking. Let’s hope not: that soil is covered by apartment buildings and office blocks now, and unlikely to be cleared for vines again any time soon.
Nobody went to ancient Rome for the wine, either, but they swarmed in for other reasons and found plenty of wine when they got there: you don’t get to be the hub of western civilisation by leaving people thirsty.
I’ve come to Rome for the wine, even if the ancient Romans’ great gift to wine drinkers was actually the vines they embedded everywhere else. I’ve tasted the distant descendants of their plantings in Gaul (France), in Tarraconensis and Baetica (both Spain) and in Magna Graecia (southern Italy), and I see a connection between the wine that homesick soldiers carried into battle and the monuments still rooted across Rome like giant stone vines. So, I’ve come to the source.
The only problem with looking at Roman monuments is that the whole city is a monument — and trying to figure out what to see, how to fit my head round the might of Rome, is making me incredibly, incurably thirsty.
So, I turn my back on the wonderful jagged silhouette of the Colosseum, its ancient walls pitted not with bullet holes, although that’s what they look like, but with scars made by medieval peasants excavating for the bronze clamps they knew had been used to build the structure. I walk down the Via dei Serpenti which, despite its sinuous name, is absolutely straight, turn in to Al Vino al Vino, order a glass of decent, inexpensive Barbera from Piedmont in northern Italy, and open a book. I’m reading The Jewish War, the record of a brave if ultimately foolhardy battle for supremacy with the Romans, written 2,000 years ago by a Jew called Josephus. To add insult to injury, the defeated, enslaved Jews were forced to build the Colosseum. In memory of those unlucky ancestors, I raise my glass of Barbera, another immigrant — no genetic link has been found with other Piemontese varieties, which suggests, writes Jancis Robinson in the Oxford Companion to Wine, that it was imported into the region relatively recently.
I pay up and leave, but don’t get far. Round the next corner, almost hidden under a waterfall of cascading ivy, is a cosy little bar, Ai Tre Scalini, where wines by the glass (all, of course, Italian) share space on a chalkboard with gnocchi del giorno and lasagne al ragú. “See how the sun’s heat, combined with the moisture filtered through the vine, changes to wine,” wrote Dante, and even though it’s dark here, the Verdicchio di Matelica, a white wine from Le Marche in eastern Italy, glows in my glass like distilled sunlight.
I wander the city, imagining the taste of the wines the Romans drank with such enthusiasm, or the thoughts of a Jewish slave waking to another day of sweating and bleeding over the rough stones and bronze clamps that will immortalise his oppressor. The Roman victory parade that followed the Siege of Jerusalem, soldiers triumphantly holding aloft their spoils from the Jews’ destroyed Temple, is carved on the Arch of Titus, three minutes’ walk from the Colosseum. Were the chained and vanquished men depicted shuffling behind their lost treasures forced to build this, too?
On my last day, I stop in Rome’s oldest surviving bar, Trimani, to raise a farewell glass: after a year of travelling and drinking, it’s time to sit still in my own home and write.
You can’t separate travel and wine: as long as people move, they’ll plant vines in new places, driven by the desire to put down roots and, maybe, produce something that truly knows where it belongs. Without movement propelled by the juice of sun-warmed, fermented grapes, Rome’s soldiers might not have conquered half the world; and I wouldn’t be here, at the end of yet another journey, sipping this, and thinking about that. Perhaps after all, everyone comes to Rome for the wine. They just don’t know it.
The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, by Nina Caplan, is published by Bloomsbury. RRP: £16.99
Published in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)