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Head of Silène in bronze, 1st century AD, Lattes

Trenches for Vineyard Planting from the Great Roman Empire, Lattes

Impressions made by a wine press from the Great Roman Empire, Lattes

Overview of vats in a wine cellar, Ist century AD, Mudaison

Photos: INRAP



The preventive archaeological excavations arising from large-scale construction works between Nîmes and Montpellier (the twinning of Highway A9 and the railway bypass of both cities) have once again uncovered the remains of long-standing wine-production operations. Vineyards, rural settlements and their local wine cellars are emerging from the earth at Lattes, Mudaison and Aimargues, in this Narbonnese cradle of French viticulture.
Parcels of land from the Great Roman Empire (1st and 2nd centuries AD) are located on five different sites in Lattes near secondary highways.  They are distinguished by a series of trenches organized in rows, which hold a vine branch at either end of the trench. "Provignage" (stem layering) [1] to renew the plants is confirmed by the perpendicular trenches. The only remaining traces of the small rural settlement of Fromigue, of about 600 m2, relate to wine-making activity between the first and third centuries AD. They piece together before our eyes a wine cellar (evidenced by the presence of 10 dolia trenches, a dolium being a large earthenware vase or vessel used in ancient Roman times for storage or transportation of goods), a reception tank for pressed juice, and a press, evidenced by two impressions. Some amphorae still contain a coating of pitch, used to preserve the wine. A head of the demi-god Silène in bronze on the end of a hook handle, a rare and remarkable object, demonstrates a "trade in luxury goods between Narbonnese's province and Campania" and the adoption of the fashion of Roman wines in connection with the wine culture: Silène was the foster father of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, later becoming Bacchus in Rome.
Stranger, and older, the site of Saint-Pierre, dating from the fourth and fifth centuries BC, reveal a vineyard associated with a "funeral garden", doubtless for people of high social status. The site of the vineyard lasted until the 3rd century AD.
At the Aubettes site at Mudaison, a Gallo-Roman wine-making operation surrounded with vineyards tells us its story from the beginning of the first century AD to the fifth century. The archaeologists describe two wine cellars, built near each other, in a remarkable state of preservation. "Each contained a series of dolia (evidenced by installation trenches in the ground). The powerful banks of mechanical grape presses are located nearby, as well as the tanks which served to collect the pressed juices." We imagine a courtyard around which were placed wine cellars and presses which must have covered a surface of about 3,500 meters square. Housing nearby for the vintners, perhaps above the wine cellars, was envisaged.
Archaeology is interested, in the context of these vast construction works, in the idea of the "terroir", the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, and its value in various time periods. The site of Missignac, near Aimargues, known since 1995, fuels this research. The land was occupied since the Iron age. Then a villa, outside the frame of the present excavations, was established in the first century AD. Vineyards, livestock holding areas and cultivated fields lined the domain.   Its maintenance, between the fifth and the thirteenth centuries, testifies about the transformation of the villa into a village, renewing what is known about the countryside of the eastern Languedoc.
These vestiges put together the puzzle of this vineyard, the largest one created by the Romans that is still intact. Three places, three illustrations of the wealth of the sites excavated to advance our knowledge of the vineyard and the wine, looking toward our modern life and its works.

Florence Monferran / janet L. Clark

Preserved Grape, 2nd century AD, Lattes

1] Layering: the technique of vine reproduction consisting of burying a vine shoot which takes root and reproduces a plant with the same characteristics as the vine stock with which it is connected (from the wine dictionary)