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Veni, vidi, viticulture - remains of Roman vineyards found in UK

Scientists are on the trail of best Britannia Nouveau - a pleasant little tipple last enjoyed 1,600 years ago.

Scientists are on the trail of best Britannia Nouveau - a pleasant little tipple last enjoyed 1,600 years ago.

Using aerial photographs, ground-penetrating remote sensing equipment, analysis of ancient weeds and apparatus to measure pollen dispersal, archaeologists and palaeobotanists are joining forces to rediscover the lost vineyards of Roman Britain. The team is led by Ian Meadows, of Northamptonshire County Council, and Tony Brown, of Exeter University's School of Geography and Archaeology.

The findings so far indicate that the imperial Italians of the early first millennium AD did not introduce their British subjects only to legionaries, villas and togas, but to the delights of cheap plonk as well.

To date the research has identified the remains of seven Romano-British vineyards - four in Northamptonshire, one in Cambridgeshire, one in Lincolnshire and one in Buckinghamshire.

Most of the wines produced at them were probably fruity, sweet and brownish in colour. The grapes would have been harvested early, before they were fully ripe, in around late September. After the treading, large amounts of honey would have been added for sweetness and to produce an alcohol content of about 10 to 12 per cent.

The wine would have continued to ferment inside storage amphorae or barrels and would have been drunk within six months. Wine from fresh grapes - as opposed to raisins - was thus a drink for winter and spring.

One of the main wine-producing areas of Roman Britain seems to have been the Nene Valley, in what is now Northamptonshire. In the valley, near the village of Wollaston, archaeologists have found ancient vineyards covering at least 30 acres, in which vines were grown in the Mediterranean Roman style, exactly as described by classical authors such as Pliny and Columella. On one site, the remains of four miles of bedding trenches have been found. Estimates suggest that the site contained 4,000 vines, producing 10,000 litres of wine a year.

In Roman times, Britain had a slightly warmer climate than now; and, with 500 to 600mm of rain a year, Northamptonshire is at the lower end of the British precipitation range, which would have meant fewer fungal problems. The area would therefore have been suitable for grape production.

Detailed studies of the sites found so far will help researchers to recognise the hallmarks of a typical vineyard. Using the aerial photos and other data collected from Roman sites, they will search for buried sites. The identification of seven vineyards, before the search has even begun in earnest, suggests that up to 250 square miles of Roman Britain were involved in grape and wine production.

Mr Meadows said: "Our research may yet reveal that Britain was a major wine producer in ancient times."