Chronicling the Italian wine vintage of 1185

According to Giovanni Codagnello, the author of the medieval Chronicle of Piacenza, 1185 was a spectacular year for Piacentino wine. Wine made in and around Piacenza (in Emilia-Romagna) would correspond roughly today to the Colli Piacentini DOC, a wine region south of Piacenza, famous more in antiquity than in our time. We know that Cicero publicly berated Julius Caesar’s father-in-law Calpurnius Piso for indulging in too much Piacentino wine. Today, the leading regional DOC variety is the Gutturnio, a red blend of Barbera and Croatina varieties, named after a type of Roman round jug known as gutturnium.

Piso would have loved the 1185 vintage, either from a gutturnium or with a straw straight from the amphora. The yield was so high that year, explains the chronicler, that a cask (it is unclear how much volume a ‘vezola’ contained) of wine sold for as little as 12 pennies, which was, in all probability, a historical low for regional wine.

The annal for 1185 in a 14th-century manuscript of Codagnello’s chronicle, in British Library Harley MS 5132, f. 4v. Transcription and translation below.

Eodem anno [1185] fuit maxima habundantia vini, ita quod dabatur vezolla de Fuxusta pro denariis XVIII et pro XVI et etiam pro denariis XII et in Rizolo pro solidis iii et in sancto Damiano et in Torano pro solidis iv et [cereal prices following].

In that same year, there was a great abundance of wine, so that a cask of wine of Piacenza [the name Fuxusta is a medieval form of Fons Augusta, one of the Roman names of the city of Piacenza] sold for 18, 16 or even for 12 pence, and in Rizzolo [a town 15km south of Piacenza] for 3 shillings, while in San Damiano [next to Rizzolo] and Torano [2km southwest of San Damiano] for 4 shillings.

What Codagnello offers us is a map of wine prices for one of the best vineyards in late 12th-century Italy. Interestingly, the sub-regions of Rizzolo, San Damiano and Torano are located within the Colli Piacentino AOC wine region, while Piacenza (presumably the wine made very close to the city gates) is not. The prices themselves may be a good reflection of relative wine quality. Medieval coinage was pre-decimal, expressed in pounds (librae, plural of libra, hence £), shillings (solidi, plural for solidus) and pence (denarii, plural of denarius). There were 12 denarii in a solidus and 20 solidi, or 240 denarii, in a libra.

The cheapest wine was that from the city of Piacenza. At 12 denarii, it was 3 times cheaper than that of Rizzolo (3 solidi = 36 denarii). Wines from San Damiano and Torano were probably the best the region could offer, if relative price is a good indicator of quality.

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