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Pitch for Better or Worse

Pitch as an amphora sealant

All amphorae and wooden casks used to transport wine were pitch-lined and -sealed within, so any vintage would take up at least a hint of a resinous flavor during a lengthy storage period. But that was a far cry from deliberately blending pitch into the wine at the outset of its fermentation. As we find today, in people's reactions to Greek retsina, resinated wines appealed to some Romans—they liked the piquant flavor and enjoyed the pleasant scent it added to the wine's general bouquet—while others loathed them:

"The little wine they have in their country [Gaul] is mixed with pitch, and harsh." (Strabo, GeographyIV.6)

We do know that the Romans imported a great deal of pitch-flavored wine from the region of Vienne on the Rhone—perhaps some of its critics were showing the usual Roman anti-Gallic prejudice when they so readily dismissed it. It also was produced in significant quantities, however, in the region of Bruttium—the "toe" of the Italian peninsula—and surely was drunk there in quantity and with pleasure. Most everyone agreed, however, that resinated wine was good for you, at minimum working against an acidic wine's tendency to cause a sickening headache (crapula).