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Oxford Companion to Wine

Oxford Companion to Wine

By Jancis Robinson

Published 2006

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(ad 23/4–79). Gaius Plinius Secundus is known in English as ‘Pliny the Elder’ to distinguish him from his nephew, also a man of letters and Pliny the Elder’s adoptive son. Of Pliny the Elder’s many works, the only one to survive is the Natural History, 37 books, dedicated to the Emperor Titus and published posthumously. Book 14 is devoted exclusively to wine, while Book 17 provides important information on the techniques of viticulture, and the beginning of Book 23 is devoted to the medicinal properties of wine (see medicine). Although most of the Natural History is based on earlier authors rather than on scientific observation, and his information, invaluable as much of it is, must be used with discrimination, the fourteenth book, on wine, seems in large part to be the product of independent enquiry. It contains practical advice as well as literary and historical learning. Its most interesting part ranks Italian wines according to quality, and sweet wines seem to be favoured (although see also athenaeus). The best wine used to be caecuban, but in Pliny’s day it is falernian, particularly Falernian of the Faustinian clos. Setine is also a wine of the first rank. The next best wines are Alban, surrentine, and massic; Pliny awards third prize to Mamertine, of Messina in Sicily. An early proponent of terroir, he concludes that it is the country and the soil that determine quality, and not the vine variety; in any case, people’s tastes differ. Pliny died during the eruption of Vesuvius when his extraordinary curiosity got the better of his common sense. In his much-quoted writings on wine, he drew on varro’s De re rustica; palladius’ treatise on husbandry is indebted to Pliny.