Wine and the Gauls: A New Exhibit in Montreal

From left to right: Amphorae, Krater of Vix - Gorgon Handle, Wine Jug fragment inscribed "Amineum" from Lyon, 2nd to 3rd century. Amineum was a popular Italian variety of wine. There were an estimated 400 varieties of grapes by the 1st century AD, but archeologists have been unable to identify these or trace them to our modern-day grape varieties. Credit: Abbie Perkins

Last week in Montréal, at Pointe-à-Callière, the city’s museum of archeology and history, a unique exhibit opened: To Your Health, Caesar! Wine and the Gauls. The exhibit traces the origins of wine, through its first recorded cultivation in Egypt, to Greece, Rome and Gaul.

The museum, working in partnership with the Départment du Rhône, France, has gathered over 200 objects from public and private collections, and displayed them to illustrate the warp and weft that the humble grape has threaded through the fabric of Western history, and in particular, to Gaul. It has also done a wonderful job of complementing these objects with multi-media presentations throughout the exhibit, using films, commentary and even a touch-screen quiz.

Tomb paintings in Egypt show that the technology for making wine dates back to between 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. In ancient Greece, drinking of wine was ritualized into a symposium (the literal translation does mean drinking together), specific vessel forms dictated their usage in serving wine: a double-handled krater was used to mix wine from an amphora (used for storage and transport) with water from a hydria (which has a third handle for tilting and pouring), and then to the rhyton which was used as either a drinking vessel or for pouring libations to the gods. The show has a lovely collection of black figure pottery dating back from the 6th century, many of which are decorated with symbols and figures related to the portrayal of Bacchus, the god of wine.

The Greeks exported their wines and subsequently their vines, to Southern Italy and as far west as Massalia (present-day Marseilles). However, the trade in wine and the establishment of vineyards in Gaul exploded during the Roman era. Both Caesar and later the Emperor Domitian tried to curb wine production in Gaul, Domitian went so far as to order the grubbing up of vines and banning overseas plantations, but all this was to no avail. By the mid-1st century, vineyards could be found throughout ancient Gaul.

One of many intriguing pieces in the exhibit is a reproduction of part of a huge 6th century krater known as the great vase of Vix. It was discovered in 1953 in the tomb of a Burgundian princess. The krater has a capacity of 1,200 litres or approximately 45 amphorae of wine, or to help put it into the economics of the time, one amphora of wine was then worth approximately that of one slave. The vessel is the largest ancient bronze vase discovered to date and is beautifully decorated with Gorgon heads on the handles and a sculpted frieze around its rim. The museum is showing a 3D film (complete with requisite green and red glasses) about the find and the Burgundian Princess near its display.

The show follows the history of wine on its outer edges, and the methods of ancient Gallic wine production in the center. On display is an enormous dolium, the vessel used for vinification into which the must (grape juice) is poured. In wine production, many different additives, from spices to herbs and even salt and pepper were normally added during the vinification process. For example, fenugreek to stimulate appetite and give the wine a nutty character; dried orris root lent a rose and violet aroma; and pitch, for a resinous flavour.

Wine was usually diluted with water, and according to contemporary texts, the most sought-after wines were sweet and strong. Caesar’s preferred tipple was Falerian, which modern-day wine scholars believe was most akin to Madiera.

The show runs from May 18 to October 16th at the Pointe-à-Callière Museum which is located in Montréal’s Old Port.

-Abbie Perkins

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