May 2011

To Your Health, Caesar! Wine and the Gauls

For immediate release

An exclusive North American premiere
May 18 to October 16, 2011

Montréal, May 17, 2011 – While quality wine of all kinds graces our modern-day tables, there is much for us to learn about it. This precious liquid has played an integral part in the history of human civilizations and helped shape some of the world’s leading societies. To Your Health, Caesar! Wine and the Gauls invites visitors to follow the “Wine Road” from the far-off origins of this marvellous beverage to the vineyards of Roman Gaul.

Produced by Pointe-à-Callière, in partnership with the Département du Rhône and its museums of Roman Gaul in Lyon-Fourvière and Saint-Romain-en-Gal/Vienne, the exhibition presents close to 200 items from some twenty leading Canadian, American and French institutions, including the prestigious Louvre Museum, and private collections. The vast array of splendid items on display include some rare objects and masterpieces revealing the sacred dimensions of wine, its uses and the main steps involved in producing it.

“Wine is a timeless beverage with a fascinating past. It has come down to us through the ages, and is still part of our customs and everyday lives. Whether you are a wine or a history buff, you are sure to find the exhibition intriguing,” explains Francine Lelièvre, Executive Director of Pointe-à-Callière. “In addition, we are delighted to mark the 20th anniversary of the twinning arrangement between Pointe-à-Callière and the museums of Roman Gaul with an exhibition on a subject that means so much to all of us.”.

The origins of wine
The exhibition begins with the origins of wine. Archaeology suggests that it all began in the Middle East, in about 5400 BC, as evidenced by the discovery of six jars that may have held wine at Hajji Firuz Tepe, in Iran. The banqueting tradition made its way from the East to Greece, where it gave rise to the refined symposium ritual (“symposium” meaning “drinking together”). Some splendid objects from the Louvre Museum, including a krater showing a banquet scene with Dionysus, illustrate this period. The Greeks, who considered grapes a divine gift, in turn passed their wine-related traditions on to the Western world. Other pieces from the Louvre point to the presence of wine in Egypt, including a label from a wine jar showing that even back in the 13th century BC, the origin of a wine and the name of the vineyard were just as important as they are today.

Romans vs. Gauls
The Romans and the Gauls were long sworn enemies, of course, and everyone has heard of Caesar’s mythical Conquest of Gaul. But the wily Gauls would take revenge on their conquerors … by making wine themselves! The exhibition explains how Caesar offered land to reward the Roman soldiers who had served him faithfully. These new landowners then planted the most profitable crop: grapes. Gaul’s wine production exploded, and previously assumed climatic barriers tumbled. By the mid-1st century AD, wine was being produced throughout the Midi, in the Rhone valley and as far as the Vienne area, near Lyon. Grapes were also planted in Aquitaine (Bordeaux), Burgundy, the Loire valley and around Paris. Better yet, Gallic wine was now popular in Rome, Egypt and even India! And Gallic vineyards survived as the Roman Empire crumbled. It definitely calls for a toast to Caesar!

How was wine made in Roman Gaul?
Long-ago texts also show that wine making was lucrative, but already highly demanding and specialized. They are filled with tips on choosing the proper site, working the soil and planting the vines in rows … everything possible had to be done to grow healthy vines and produce good-quality wine. Today’s wine producers will certainly be able to relate to many of these ancient instructions. And as a concrete example of these texts, on a platform in the centre of the exhibition visitors will see one of the symbols of Gallic wine production: a dolium, a large terracotta jar in which grape juice was fermented and turned into wine. Around the platform, the steps in Gallic wine making are explained, including the fact that during vinification, herbs and spices like fenugreek, oris root, salt and pepper were commonly added to flavour the wine.

An imposing piece: the Vix krater
Visitors will be able to admire a large installation with a copy of the frieze from the Vix krater, the largest ancient bronze vase ever found, which points to the power of its owner and the influence of Greek traditions. The vase, 1.64 metres tall and 1.27 metres in diameter, would have held over 1,100 litres. It was found in the grave of the Vix princess, at the foot of Mount Lassois, in Vix, Burgundy, dating from about the 6th century BC.

An invaluable shipwreck
One of the highlights of the exhibition comes from one largest underwater archaeology sites anywhere: a virtual reconstruction and a model of the wreck of the Madrague de Giens. The Madrague was carrying some 6,000 amphorae filled with the best Roman vintages to Gaul when it went down off the coast of Marseille sometime between 75 and 60 BC. The Mediterranean at the time was filled with ships heavily laden with amphorae, for wine was flooding into Gaul from Rome, enjoyed by the Gauls at their enormous feasts. Several amphorae recovered by underwater archaeologists from the wreck between 1972 and 1982 will also be on display.

From New France to the present
The exhibition ends on a more modern note, with the voyage of wine from Gaul to Quebec. Many descendants of the Gauls crossed the Atlantic to settle in New France. In fact, Jacques Cartier dubbed the Île d'Orléans “Bacchus’ island” when he saw wild grapes growing there. Moreover, with the recently created Wine Route in Quebec, it is clear that wine production is going strong and continuing to inspire contemporary artists. Quebec ceramic artist Richard Milette, for example, models his work on ancient vases and amphorae, with a distinctive modern touch.

The final exhibit is a painting by Quebec artist Marc Séguin, a rising star on the international contemporary art scene. The piece, entitled Abbaye de Saint-Vivant, after the famous monastery founded in about 910 AD, was painted with Romanée-St-Vivant from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, a great Burgundy wine. It was at that monastery, in fact, that Cluniac monks came up with the idea of terroirs, and marked out most of the great vintages of Vosne-Romanée, where they had wine-making facilities. Since 1996, an association has been striving to preserve this monastery, one of the last witnesses to Burgundy’s great historic role as a wine-producing region.

The history of alcohol in Quebec, as part of the 90th anniversary of the SAQ
To complement the exhibition and mark the 90th anniversary of the SAQ, a mini-exhibition on the history of alcohol in Quebec will be on display in the Museum mezzanine. Visitors will be able to see various items from the SAQ’s private collection, including barrel-making tools, measuring instruments, stencils and stamps. Some fascinating facts and items!

Win a trip to Gaul
Pointe-à-Callière will be offering visitors the chance to win a one-week stay for two in the Rhône-Alpes region of France, thanks to Tourism Rhône-Alpes and ATOUT France, in partnership with Zeste. Entry forms will be available at the Museum and online starting June 6. See the Pointe-à-Callière website for full contest details.

Presented from May 18 to October 16, 2011, To Your Health, Caesar! Wine and the Gauls was produced by Pointe-à-Callière, the Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History in co-operation with the museums of Roman Gaul in Lyon-Fourvière and Saint-Romain-en-Gal/Vienne. The Museum wishes to thank its sponsors, the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ), Astral, Air Canada Cargo, Hôtel InterContinental, Air Canada and Tourisme Montréal and its partners, Zeste, Tourism Rhône-Alpes, ATOUT France au Canada, the agence de développement touristique de la France, La Presse and The Gazette.

The Museum is subsidized by the City of Montréal.