Tour des Fouilles (5): of Grape and Man

Today's stage passes through some of the most productive wine regions of France. As France nowadays is - by far -  the world's largest wine producer, it is perhaps hard to imagine that, for most of antiquity, this was rather different. When the Greeks settled along the south coast, they brought the grape with them, but viticulture did not spread much beyond the territory of, basically, Marseille. Indeed, when the Gaulish tribes of central France adopted the habit of drinking wine in the last centuries BC, they had to import it - and as the spread of Roman amphorae of the period indicates, they did so on a massive scale (which made some Roman families extravagantly wealthy, thank you very much). In a way, the amphora preceded the sword: when the Romans finally conquered Gaul, people had been drinking Italian wine for quite some time. 

La Roquebrussanne, Le Grand Loou: Overview of the excavation site - Still, the villa is surrounded by vineyards [source]

Only in the Roman period, things began to change: viticulture spread over Gaul towards Northern Europe - already reaching the Mosel valley in the first centuries of our era. In the Imperial period, especially in southern France, vast wine-producing estates emerged, with large farmsteads where grapes were pressed and turned into wine. Today, some 70 kilometers before the finish line, shortly after the climb to La Roquebrussanne, the race passes one of the most famous examples of these: the Villa of Grand-Loou at La Roquebrussanne. It is still visible - and still surrounded by large vineyards belonging to the Domaine du Loou, where Cotaux Varois is produced.

La Roquebrussanne, Le Grand Loou: Villa with doliarium - [source]

The villa was built on the site of an older, much smaller farmstead in the early second century. On the above picture, in front, you can see the remains of dolia, big round vats in which the wine was stored until it was ready. The villa was extended several times over the course of a century, until it finally had not fewer than sixty dolia, and was able to store some 1100 hectolitres of wine. This makes it one of the biggest Roman winefarms of Gaul. It was abandoned at the end of the second century, when agriculture in this region seems to go through a big crisis.

The scale of the villa suggests that it did not just produce for its direct regional environment, and, indeed, amphores from the Provence have been found in great numbers in Rome and Ostia. Yet what is significant is the historical context in which this all happened: why does this villa flourish in the second century, and not before? An interesting theory is that this might be related to the eruption of the Vesuvius in 79 AD, which did substantial damage to the wine-producing capacity of southern Campania - the direct environment of Pompeii was a major wine-producing region, and most of that had literally vanished. Southern Gaul seems to have profited from this: after 79, the quantity of Gaulish wine amphoras in Rome increases fivefold (!). This in turn made large-scale investment attractive - and this lead to massive wine-farms like the one at La Roquebrussanne. 


Tchernia, A. (2011). Les Romains et le commerce. Naples.
Brun, J.-P. (2001). ‘La viticulture antique en Provence’. Gallia 58: 69–89.
Cleere, H. (2001). Southern France. Oxford Archaeological Guides. Oxford.