The English country estate that’s reviving wine from the Roman times

At a reconstructed Roman villa on The Newt country estate in Somerset, Douglas Blyde finds a toga-loving winemaker taking 'a step back in wine' to revisit vinous styles and methods from the Roman Empire

Words by Douglas Blyde

Villa Ventorum
A view of the east side of Villa Ventorum at The Newt

Commissioned by Koos Bekker and Karen Roos, who also own the luxury Babylonstoren wine farm in Franschhoek, Villa Ventorum (Villa of The Winds) is the boldest reconstruction of a British Roman villa, replete with a working vineyard and cellar. It follows the footprint of a mansion from AD351 found to the southwest of the 1,000-acre Hadspen Estate in Somerset, home to The Newt. The resort celebrates, with poise, things that grow for beauty, enjoyment, education and consumption.

The villa’s gardens are laid to medicinal, kitchen and ornamental planting, flanked by orchards, meadows, a lake and 1,200 vines planted into mounds to aid irrigation. Their canes are trained around wicker hearts, with their roots morbidly feeling around Roman skeletons, one of which, a noble, has been excavated and now lies behind glass.

Dominic Gover inspects the vines, which are planted on mounds to help with irrigation

Dominic Gover is The Newt’s often toga-clad Roman winemaker. A graduate in Oenology and Viticulture with an MA in Classics, he previously made the increasingly famous ‘cyder’ at The Newt’s high-tech facility, close to a walled garden of apple trees. ‘We’ve planted Pinot Noir, though to Romans the most prized variety was Aminea Gemina. Some scholars have claimed this is Greco di Tufo but the problem is we haven’t yet found the genetic material from vine remains from the Roman era to be able to reliably correlate it to existing varieties – but it could be out there.’

In Roman times, wine was safer to drink than water and deemed a daily necessity, hence ‘even children and slaves drank it,’ says Gover. However, the most esteemed Falernian can be compared to today’s first growths; indeed the Romans named the most fabled of Falernian vintages after the Consul (military leader) of that year. ‘Opimian wine, named after Consul Opimius in 121BC, was served at a banquet in honour of Julius Caesar in 60BC, lasting over 60 years in sealed amphorae,’ says Gover. This would have been heated, in a similar way to Madeira’s estufas, pasteurising it, leading to nutty and dried fruit flavours, ‘but you wouldn’t drink it neat.’

Gover has a working fumarium (heated room) cum grain dryer to concentrate grape sugars and potentially heat wines. ‘Romans liked sweet wine and in southern climes would have twisted the stems to leave grape bunches to dehydrate on the vine or else picked and left them to air-dry for hot African wines.  In cooler zones, they would have dried them above hearths or in fumaria as they still do today in the Veneto.’ Gover hands me a bunch of shrivelled grapes that bear an Islay whisky-like smoke taint in the mouth, resulting from the ‘leakiness’ of the building’s hypocaust system.

Handmade clay wine vessels sit in insulated wooden troughs for temperature stability at Villa Ventorum

We fold back a hurdle to enter the wattle and daub cella vinaria (wine cellar), which has an earth, blood and straw floor. There is a stone trough where grapes would be foot-trodden, were it not for the ‘punctilious’ health and safety inspector.

Before pressing, the clear free-run juice from clusters – protropum – would, as today, have been the most prized. ‘The Romans were well aware of the qualities of pressings,’ says Gover. Juice, or mustum would have splashed along open channels or lead pipes and sat in open tanks to settle. ‘This would naturally oxidise the mustum and render the wine more impervious to oxidation later.’ It is a process that some contemporary producers, such as Bellavista in Lombardy, currently employ.

Beautiful handmade clay dolia (vessels) sit in insulated wooden troughs; this is to mimic dolia defossa, where the Romans partially or completely buried the vessel underground for temperature stability, as in modern-day Georgia. ‘Clay fired at lower temperatures has a certain porosity to oxygen but also to liquid, so the Romans lined the interiors with beeswax and resin. Both materials are antibacterial and would have slowed down acetification’. Piney aromatic notes are apparent in the wines that we now try.

Villa Ventorum at The Newt is on the right
Villa Ventorum in the distance, with the vines planted to the villa's west

First, the ferments from grapes brought from other vineyards in England; the ambition is to take the harvest from the four-year-old vines on site next year. We start with a vinum candidum (white), olive-oil coloured, unfiltered, naturally settled Hampshire Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. ‘As our press is currently ornamental, I fermented on the skins, later adding honey, black pepper, saffron and herbs from the garden, noting that Apicius’ original recipes advise using “fragrant leaves”, which gives me latitude to pick any Roman herb I can find.’  The aperitif style pour has an honest intensity. ‘The Greeks and the Romans always drank their wine diluted, sometimes adding salt water to the spiced wine. Pliny the Elder, who was in a way an early wine critic, cautioned you should collect this well out to sea for reasons still applicable today…’

Next, we try a ‘raw’ vinum atrum (red wine). ‘I’ll unleash this on you! A Hampshire Pinot Noir still on the skins loaded with antioxidants, which hasn’t gone through any kind of malolactic. Once you take it off those it’s a race against time.’ Raspberry notes arise from the crisp pour, which Gover intends to bottle without added sulphur. ‘This is a merum or pure wine.’

Inside Villa Ventorum at The Newt

Finally, we taste another seasoned wine, a sanguine Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec blend using grapes from Babylonstoren. ‘No saffron but it does have things like fennel, bay, thyme, honey and black pepper.’ Gover notes honey and pepper could ‘cancel each other out’, though he has achieved harmony.

I take the last of my wine and head for the thermopolium, a functional snack bar resembling those excavated in Herculaneum. A braise of estate lamb, sweetened with estate honey, is ladled onto a mensae-style toasted semolina flatbread. It combines effortlessly with the agreeable wine, transporting my tongue nearly 1,700 years into the past. Then I find myself raising a glass to the skeleton of the Roman aristocrat in the visitor centre in thanks for a glimpse into his existence…

Villa Ventorum is free to access for hotel guests and as part of the Newt Membership, with children up to 16 admitted for free when accompanied by an adult.