Roman Wine Cellars, Vinum Storage and Transport

Roman wine cellars were called cella vinaria, and not vinariums or even vinum cellariums.

While the idea of visiting ancient Rome and drinking a cup of wine may seem appealing, it’s quite likely the beverage itself would taste rather poorly when perceived by your modern mouth. Romans had to work hard to keep their wine from spoiling, or taking-on foul odours, or becoming vinegar which they called Acetum. Another Latin word Vappa describes wine that has been left for too long exposed to the air and has lost its properties and become insipid. Furthermore we know that Romans had a preference for adding strange ingredients to their wines (because they’d already spoiled, or to arrest their spoilage) and pitch (beeswax and pine tar) from their crude containers would have been frequently tasted in the vinum depending on your status. Today when we read the works of Roman writers—most notably Cato, Columella, Horace, Catullus, Palladius, Pliny, Varro and Virgil, we gain insights into the role wine played in Roman culture, as well as how wine storage affected early viticultural practices.

Four different kinds of wine are said to have been present for the first time at a feast given by Julius Caesar in his third consulship (B.C. 46), these being Falernian, Chian, Lesbian, and Mamertine. Historians agree that is was not until after this date that the merits of the numerous varieties, foreign and domestic, were accurately known and fully appreciated. During the reign of Augustus, the study of wines became a common passion, and the most scrupulous care was bestowed upon every part of the wine-making process including the preservation of fine wine. The perishable liquid had religious, medicinal and social roles that set it apart from other Roman cuisine. Throughout the history of the Roman Empire, the demand for wine increased with the wealth of its middle class subjects.

Romans stored wine in the cella vinaria, and if you were ever invited into one of these sacred places you would encounter vinum (wine) fermentation and storage vessels known as dolia defossa. Very often the ceramic containers were buried in the ground, but during production some big pots were worked above ground. Each of these large cisterns would typically have just under 1,000 liters capacity and be buried up to their necks in the floor to keep the temperature of the wine constant and cool. The cella vinaria was always carefully located away from odorous industries like leather tanneries, butcheries or animal dung heaps.

Dolia Defossa in Ostia Italy

The best wine in the cella vinaria was stored separate from the submerged tanks. It was transferred from the dolia into special made terracotta amphorae that had their insides coated in beeswax. If Romans were to rack the wine, they would transfer it into these study containers for long term storage in their cella vinarias or with other goods in regular warehouses.

Ostia (seen above) in Italy boasts the best known example of an ancient cella vinaria that’s filled with dolia defossa storage containers. In one room there are twenty-two buried dolia for wine and olive oil. Ten jars have numbers indicating their capacity in amphorae (one amphora = 26 1/4 litres). On average, the dolia contained 33 amphorae each. The twenty-two dolia at Ostia could store nineteen thousand liters of wine!

Romans making wine, filling dolia with juice in a cella vinaria

Wine or Vinum Storage in Ancient Rome

How Romans stored wine tells us a lot about their industry and their understanding of science. They knew that air must be kept out of the storage vessel to prevent wine’s oxidation. The container must be strong enough not to easily break, but without being so heavy that it cannot be easily moved. In many cases, the vessels needed to be opened periodically and then resealed. Furthermore, the jar itself shouldn’t interact with the wine, meaning it shouldn’t impart any flavour of its own. In addition to these goals, the vessel needed to be stored in an environment that had a stable temperature. This left the Ancient World with four main wine storage vessel solutions:


Kvevri (also translated as qvevri) originated in Georgia and were used there as early as 6000 BCE. Qvevris, being so large and cumbersome, and most often buried in the ground, were probably not used for transporting wine, although some historians would disagree. The clay vessels were also further strengthened with beeswax coated interiors and exterior wraps. Besides being the oldest wine storage vessel known to man, it’s also one of the few containers that was used in every stage of wine production from grape crushing to aging to long term storage. The process began when unfermented grapes, or wild grapes that grew naturally in the region were dumped into a kvevri stems and all. The vat could hold hundreds to thousands of liters of liquid depending on its size. The grapes were then crushed and the kvevri was further buried all the way underground to keep the wine at a steady temperature and secure fermentation. Once the period of primary fermentation was over, the kvevri was covered with a large stone to create an airtight seal. The kvevri was then left undisturbed for up to two years, allowing the wine to undergo malolactic fermentation and finish with aging. What came out was an earthenware-aged wine that would have tasted quite unlike any other liquid in the ancient world.

Amphora – Rome’s Most Standard Wine Containers

Amphorae were the ancient world’s primary method of transporting any valuable liquid, and as such they came in standard sizes. Ceramic vessels of this type can be dated back to the neolithic period. The jugs were used to transport wine, olive oil and other prized liquids. Amphorae came in many sizes, similar to both the bulk transport formats we use today as well as the world’s common wine bottle sizes. These beeswax-lined ceramic containers, invented by the Egyptians, were gradually adopted by nearly all wine drinking societies in the Mediterranean. They reached their peak usage (and standardization) in ancient Rome. These jugs were easy to produce and most importantly, easy to transport. Their cylindrical shape, tapered bottoms and sturdy handles made them easy to lift and transport. The long neck served four purposes: 1) it allowed for handles, 2) it reduced the surface area of wine that would be exposed to oxygen. 3) It provided sturdy structures for plugs, corks and other closures, and 4) it made pouring easy. The tapered bottom allowed sediment to collect and the amphora itself to be easily buried when cooler, long-term storage was required.

Museum exhibit showing amphora packed tight in pine fronds in an oared galley’s hold.

Amphora were made to fit into the skiffs and oared sea vessels. The handles eased the load of carrying them by hand. The amphora’s tapered bottom also proved useful in keeping its contents from being too disturbed by sea travel. Jostling was further mitigated by filling a ship’s hold with sand or tree branches and then packing the amphora tightly together inside. When the vessel is loaded with cargo and oarsmen, it would leak a little water and the moisture would swell the bilge material making it even more effective insulation. Later Roman Age vessels were often rated by the number of amphora they could carry. (Cic. ad Fam. XII.15Liv. XXI.63) and the produce of a vineyard was reckoned by the number of amphorae, or of culei (of twenty amphorae each), which it yielded.

Looking at an amphora you can see the similarities to a modern wine bottle, from the long neck, which keeps the wine away from oxygen, to the sediment-collecting concave bottom of most wine bottles called the ‘punt.’ The best wines were stored in the best of these ceramic containers which often had lovely decorations. To standardize these ceramic bottles, trade administrators in ancient Rome set aside the best proportioned amphora, called amphora Capitolina, in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, and it was in accordance with this model of perfection that all the empire’s jugs were fashioned.

Goatskin Bags and Animal Bladders

A waterskin is an Ancient Era receptacle used to hold water. Normally made of a sheep or cow bladder, it retains water naturally and therefore was very useful in desert crossings until the invention of the canteen. It is still used today in some developing nations. Though it may have been used over 5000 years ago by tribal peoples, the first pictures of it are from ancient Assyrians, who used the bladders as floats in 3000 B.C. It also was used by Romans for transporting water, wine and oils. On festival days large amounts of wine were moved about and this required goatskins sewn together to make a tun (usually on a two-wheeled wooden cart) and pitched as we previously described.

A large animal skin filled with wine

There were two major Roman festivals relating to wine production: the Vinalia prima (“first Vinalia”) held on April 23rd allowed ordinary men and women to sample the previous year’s vintage of ordinary wine in Venus’ name. At the same festival the Roman elite offered a generous libation of wine to Jupiter in the hopes of good weather for the next year’s crop.

Vinalia Rustica, held on August 19th was originally a rustic Latin harvest festival. It celebrated the grape harvest, and the growth and fertility of all garden crops. Its patron deity may have been Venus, or Jupiter, or both. To properly celebrate the occasions, urban feast planners found it necessary to transport wine from their cella vinaria to one place to another on the day. Such transport was invariably accomplished using goatskin bags. These vessels often resembled a goat with its appendages tied and well pitched over so as to make the seams perfectly tight. When a large quantity of wine was to be moved, the hides were sewed together, and the leather tun was created, usual atop a two wheeled cart, so wine could be carried from place to place.

Oak Barrels

As the Roman empire expanded in all directions they met and conquered numerous cultures possessing better technology. The Gauls who lived north and east of their domain transported their brew craft in wooden barrels, bound together with metal hoops. While the Celts are recognized as the inventors of the wooden barrel, historians agree it was through the Gauls that Rome first adopted them. In the stone carving below, we can see wine being transported in large wooden barrels with metal hoops. A single bargeman steers the boat towed by slaves. At the top of the piece are shown several styles of amphora, both wickered and smooth.

roman wine in barrels towed by slaves, amphora above
Roman wine in barrels in river barge towed by slaves, amphora above

Wooden barrels proved stronger than clay vessels, and they weighed far less for the volume shipped. Plus well made wooden barrels could be turned on their side and rolled. Oak was the wood of choice for wine barrels, even back then and over the following centuries wine lovers realized the positive effects that oak has on wine. Selecting this species of wood probably wasn’t so deliberate in the beginning though, the Roman’s choice of oak over other woods was likely more influenced by both the abundance of oak trees in Europe at the time, and the wood’s tight grain.

Glass Bottles

Roman glass was too fragile to be dependable for wine storage over long periods of time, but it was used on ceremonial occasions, and sometimes included in funerary rituals, and it was relatively common for wine to be served from glass pitchers.

Greco Roman wine serving vessels from Venice
The Speyer Wine Bottle

The Speyer wine bottle, on display at a museum in Speyer Germany proves the Romans did indeed use glass bottles to store wine. The vessel in question is a sealed 1.5-litre (51 US fl oz) glass vessel with amphora-like shoulders and dolphin-shaped handles. The glass bottle most likely holds wine, although its interior contents have never been tested. It was unearthed in a Roman tomb discovered nearby in 1867, but archaeologists date the vessel’s origins to between 325 and 350 AD and that makes this relic the oldest unopened bottle of wine in the world.

What is a Vinarium?

Articles by the historian William Ramsay, M.A., Professor of Humanity in the University of Glasgow attribute the word Vinarium to the Roman Age equipment used to separate sediment from the fermenting beverage in amphorae, and not the room in which the wine was stored. This author writes how sediment was removed “…simply by straining through small cup-like utensils of silver or bronze perforated with numerous small holes, and distinguished by the various names”.