Wine in Etruria: Orvieto, an extraordinary journey back in time


The tufa flat rock of Orvieto from a vineyard
When they reached the Central Italy, in the sixth century B.C, the Etruscans noticed this isolated plateau of volcanic rock rising up over the plain of the river Paglia, a perfect place for a new settlement.
We don’t know today how the Etruscan Orvieto – named at that time Velzna – looked like, milliennial layers of history have covered it, but we know how it worked from the underground: the Etruscans dug thousand caves in the tufa rock including ones used for a very sophisticated system of wine making.
The archaeologists have found several caves on three levels: on the first floor, the first room, the grapes were crushed. The juice reached the second level caves via terracotta pipes; here it fermented for a certain period. After that, the wine was moved to the third level for the maturing and preservation, thanks to the constant (“controlled” – as we say today) natural temperatures of the caves.
This smart vinification system on three levels – that takes advantage of the gravity force – is used today in many wineries to avoid to “stress” the fermented juice from a room to another as it could happen using electrical pumps.
[Copyright Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Orvieto]
An extraordinary document preserved in Orvieto on the importance of wine in the Etruscan civilization is the frescoes in he so-called Golini 1tomb. On the walls of the tomb, some servants are painted in the act of preparing food and wine and bunches of grapes are clearly visible.
The prosperity of the Etruscan Velzna was certainly connected the production of wine: the great number of different types of cups found in these tombs clearly indicates how important it was. This fine pottery was used in the aristocratic banquets and it was imported directly from Athens, Greece. The high quality of the vases found in Orvieto is a proof of the power and opulence as well as the high cultural level of the citizens of Velzna in the 6th and 5th century B.C: they were wealthy enough to be able to buy the same expensive objects trendy in Athens, the cradle of arts and civilization in those times.
Etruscan Women and Wine
Differently from the Greek and Roman society, the role of the women was very “modern” in this civilization: in Etruria women also took part to the religious banquets involving wine. This custom was sharply criticized by the Roman historians and basically not accepted in the rest of the ancient world. The public participation to these ceremonies indicates that the Etruscan woman had much more freedom of action and that the role in this society was different and more active in comparison to the other contemporary civilizations who got in contact with them.
Skilled Farmers
The Etruscans were also the most skilled farmers in the Mediterranean basin in those times: they were the first who studied the cultivation of the vine, the grafts and layout of the vineyards.
They also started training the vine in the vite maritata (literally “wedded vine”) system, in which the vines were trained up and supported by a living tree rather than a stake as happened in ancient Greece. The trees such us poplar, oaks or olives, thanks to their roots, reduced the acidity of the soil, while the foliage favoured the pollination*.


If you like to learn more join our “Wine & the City” experience in Orvieto, from the ancient Etruscan caves to the floreal bouquet of modern Orvieto Classico. Contact us!
[*Historic information from “Orvieto Caput Etruriae”; “Il Miracolo è fatto”]
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