Throughout Tuscany, we can see and appreciate the relics of those who came before us. History is everywhere in this region, from the Etruscan walls surrounding towns like Volterra, to the ornate Renaissance facades of palazzi and to the museums full of art through the ages. It is easy to observe these reminders of civilizations past, but it is another thing to fully understand life as it was for ancient Italians and appreciate how their long-ago lives still influence us today. Who were the early settlers to whom we owe so much? Before motorini, Bella Vita and even the Roman Empire, the lush lands we now call Tuscany were home to the ever-mysterious Etruscans.
Who were the Etruscans?
This is a question that has plagued scholars and historians for years. What we do know is limited but luckily some of their history has been uncovered. In particular, we know that the Etruscans predated the Romans. We know that outside of Greece, for a long time they were the most advanced civilization in the world and in fact they were likely “civilized” by the ancient Greeks themselves. We also know that most ancient Romans had some Etruscan ancestry and that the Romans copied the Etruscans in their alphabet (which was borrowed from the Greeks as well). Perhaps, even more importantly though, the Romans adopted the Etruscans practices of wine production and trade.
Why is ancient wine important?
Much of what allowed the Romans and other early Europeans to experience such success as an empire is due to what they learned from the Etruscans. In particular, trading for profit was an important aspect of ancient Etruscans culture and often times this trade was in wine. Studies conducted in the last few years using grape and wine residue in French amphorae confirm that it was likely the Etruscan Italians who taught early French populations about wine production.
How did the Wine Trade help create the world we see today?
At first it may seem irrelevant to think about people from 2,500 years ago trading and making wine. However, trading wine allowed a more important trade to take place: the trade of culture. As Etruscans brought their wine from Central Italy along the coast of France and beyond, they also encouraged a development for a taste for wine among these people. A taste for wine meant that different cultures began growing and producing their own varieties of grapes and thus also engaging in the wine and culture trade. The early production grape crops, to the award winning wine we now see coming out of Tuscany and France is in large part due to the help of the fascinating Etruscan people. Without their tireless trade efforts, wine throughout the region may never have developed to what we have today.
What was Etruscan wine like?
We know that Etruscan wine was often seasoned with herbs, such as basil, thyme and rosemary. We know also that they crushed the grapes on limestone tables that had a type of spout carved into them to allow the juice to be extracted. And, perhaps most interestingly, we know the wine was traded in gorgeously decorated amphorae. The amphora is a type of ceramic pottery with a long neck with two narrow handles on each side and an oblong body, used to transport wine and sometimes dry goods as well. Today we still have many examples of Etruscan wine amphorae in existence which are recognizable by their beautiful decorative imagery, often painted in black and white. These amphorae, which you can see in various museums throughout Italy, are the precursor to our modern wine bottles.
If you think about how, on a vacation in Italy, stocking up on wine and putting a bottle or two in your suitcase is common practice, you can imagine the early Etruscans doing a similar thing with their amphorae. Remarkably, in this way, our wine trading has stayed much the same for two and a half millennia. It’s fascinating to think that despite all the changes from their world to ours, our affection and use of wine as a cultural bridge and vehicle has remained mostly unchanged. So, the next time you sit down to enjoy your favorite Tuscan wine, raise your glass to the the Etruscans who made it all possible some 2,500 years ago.