The ‘Opimium’ Vintage of 121B.C.

February 21, 2020 by French Corner Cellars

Those of you familiar with the vernacular used for reference to ancient wines of a high quality are certainly familiar with Opimium wines. These wines, named after the counselor Lucian Opimius in 121 B.C., are an extension of the also legendary Falerian wines.

As the story is told, Falernus, an old Roman farmer making a modest earning using the soil of Mt. Massico (about 30 miles north of Naples). One day he was visited by a certain disguised god of agriculture, wine and fertility. Falernus prepared him a small meal, in return for the hospitality, Bacchus caused the cups at the table to fill with delicious wine. The next day, Bacchus was gone, and a very hungover Falernus noticed that the whole of Mt. Massico was blanketed with healthy vines.

The vintage, 121 B.C. ‘the vintage of a lifetime’, was celebrated for decades; multiple ancient sources mention having the chance to taste the wine 200 years after its vintage date. Writer Pliny the Elder acknowledges that the wine was a bit past its peak by then, a popular opinion which even found its way within Petronius’ comedy Satyricon, in which Gaius Trimalchio, the new-money buffoon of the play, acts the big shot when he serves this vintage—by this time 180-year-old vinegar—at a dinner party.

In the same year, Lucius Opimius, a Roman politician who held the consulship, had recently ousted popular leader Gaius Gracchus from the position, in turn he and his allies staged a mass protest on Aventine Hill, a significant site in Roman mythology, and one of the areas in which ancient Rome was founded. Senators quickly ordered Opimius to quell the protest by any means necessary – including violence. A battle ensued, killing Gracchus and his ally senators, and a great deal of his followers. Afterwards, using a state of emergency declared after the clash, Opimius ordered the execution of over 3,000 or remaining supporters without trial.

The story of Falernus, combined with Lucius’ infamy, and the legendary 121 B.C. vintage, gave the notion of exemplary wines produced in an extraordinary year being referred to as ‘Opimium’ wines. This has stuck so well that the story behind Falerian wines has almost fallen away completely, outside of well-informed wine circles.

As far as the wine itself, the grapes were, like many ancient wines, harvested late and left to dry before being fermented and reaching 15 or 16 percent alcohol—a high mark even by today’s standards, though the Romans were known to cut their wines with water when drinking. Modern Italian wines such as Amarone & Vin Santo are made much the same way. And remember, with heavier wines like this, make sure they are consumed between 60 ° –  65 ° to relive your pallet of any heat they may have.