A New Titleholder For Earliest Wine?

By Gemma Tarlach | November 13, 2017 2:00 pm
Known for its unusual varietals and millennia-old wine traditions, the Republic of Georgia may also be where viniculture was born. (Credit G. Tarlach)

Known for its unusual varietals and millennia-old wine traditions, the Republic of Georgia may also be where viniculture was born. (Credit G. Tarlach)

Where are the roots of the earliest wine? Countries in southwestern Asia have long contested who was first to ferment grapes. To date, the oldest widely accepted evidence for viniculture came from the Zagros Mountains of Iran.

But now new research from the Republic of Georgia — a perennial and fierce challenger for the title — suggests people in that Southern Caucasus country were sipping the nectar of the gods even earlier.

Wine* was all the rage throughout much of the ancient world, but despite widespread use and cultural significance, its origin story has always been a little murky.

(*I’m following the European Union’s definition of wine as the product of grapes. I know all about rice wine, honey wine, hawthorn wine and so on, but, while tasty and with interesting histories of their own, they’re beyond the scope of this post.)

Archaeological evidence and, more recently, genetic evidence, have zeroed in on the Near East/southwestern Asia as the most likely region where winemaking began, but the exact spot has proven elusive.

It’s very possible, of course, that more than one person in more than one settlement, surrounded by wild vines, realized that letting juice from the vines’ fruit ferment a bit resulted in a delicious, mind-altering beverage. In fact, the pips of wild grapes have been found at a site near the Sea of Galilee that are about 20,000 years old, suggesting people were enjoying the fruit, and probably its juice, long before it was domesticated.

But it’s one thing to chew on or squash and drink the juice of wild grapes, quite another to domesticate a crop and develop a method (and then an industry) for producing a fermented beverage from it.

Grapes, most of which are used to make wine, are today one of the most valuable crops in the world, and there’s prestige to be had from being the cradle of viniculture. Nearly every country in the corner of Asia where grapes were first domesticated (Turkey, Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia) has made a bid for the title of first winemaker.

For more than 20 years, the archaeological site of Hajji Firuz Tepe, in the Zagros Mountains of Iran, had arguably the best case for earliest evidence of winemaking. A roughly 7,000-year-old shard from a large vessel had tested positive for tartaric acid, a key residue distinct to the winemaking process, as well as a potential wine preservative derived from tree resin.

The Republic of Georgia, however, had staked its own claim for the earliest wine based on similar residues on pottery shards that were about 8,000 years old. The evidence was called into question because of issues with exactly where the material was found (turns out the piece with the highest amount of residue was collected from the surface of the site, rather than a securely dated layer) and the potential for a false positive result based on how shards were handled after excavation.

Today, the Georgians (and a few non-Georgian colleagues) are back with new evidence.

Wine In The Way, Way Back

New excavations at Shulaveris Gora and Gadachrili Gora, two sites south of the capital of Tbilisi, yielded more pottery shards, with some pieces as old as 8,000 years (dates established using both relative and absolute methods, including radiocarbon dating).

Chemical analysis showed that several of the shards tested positive for residues associated with winemaking, including tartaric, malic, succinic, and citric acids. Not found, however, were any resins, which were commonly used in ancient viniculture. Also not found: pips or any other solids from the grapes themselves, which you could reasonably expect to find from both from the winemaking process and as contents settled in storage.

Still, the chemical profile of the residues points in one direction, and that direction is wine.

 

Neolithic jar from Khramis Didi-Gora, Georgia. (Courtesy of the Georgian National Museum)

A Neolithic jar from Khramis Didi-Gora, Georgia is similar to vessels that tested positive for residues associated with winemaking from other ancient sites in the country. (Courtesy of the Georgian National Museum)

I’ll Drink To That!

The recent digs at both sites are part of a larger push, invested with more than a little national pride, to establish Georgia as the motherland of winemaking. Does that mean we should take today’s results with a grain of salt? No, not necessarily. It’s just good to know the broader context.

The international team behind today’s paper, published in PNAS, includes some of the most respected names in the study of early viniculture and their evidence is well-documented. And in their conclusions, the researchers note: “The question might be asked which region has priority in the discovery and dissemination of the ‘wine culture’ and the domesticated grape. It is impossible to assign priority to any of these regions at this stage in the investigation; much more excavation and the collection of wild grapevines for DNA analysis are needed.”

I do know that the Georgian people are fiercely proud of their millennia-long viniculture — and that the wines are indeed worth the passion they stir up. Interested in reading more about Georgia’s traditional winemaking? Check out a post I wrote last year after visiting the fascinating and beautiful country and yes, sampling more than a few of its scrumptious and unique varietals.

Traditional wine-making in the Republic of Georgia, even today, relies on large, distinctively shaped clay containers called qvevri, which are buried or built into cellars. The shape of the qvevri is similar to the vessel found at Khramis Didi-Gora. Credit: G. Tarlach

Traditional wine-making in the Republic of Georgia, even today, relies on large, distinctively shaped clay containers called qvevri, which are buried or built into cellars. (Credit G. Tarlach)

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  • OWilson

    Looks like the cultural habits we are familiar with today suddenly burst forth around 8,000 years ago.

    Coincidently that was the time Global Warming took off with a bullet!

    I raise a glass to Mother Nature!

    • FluffyGhostKitten

      I won’t. Where I live, grapevines are weeds. The neighbor put up an arbor several decades ago, and his vines, left to their own devices, did as your beloved Mother Nature bid (that is, bred like the floral equivalent of rabbits), and their progeny took over the neighborhood, choking out other plants, taking limbs off trees, and as I discovered yesterday, treating our phone line like a kid treats a jungle gym.

      • OWilson

        “Weeds” are a human construct.

        Mother Nature just grows stuff!

        • mary

          weeds are any plant growing where it is not wanted. as any gardner will tell you 😉

          • OWilson

            One man’s weed is anothe man’s life saving sustenance.

            (The big picture!) :)

          • okiejoe

            That’s just what Mary said.

          • OWilson

            We are just having fun here!

            You missed the point stated above, namely Mother Nature does not classify her own production line.

            She let’s us choose what is useful at any particular time.

            Just a few years ago that black stuff that polluted desert oases and poisoned camels, is now the main driving force of human prosperity!

            Let’s suppose that an extract from Mary’s particular species of wild vines was found to instantly cure asian flu.

            She might be tending them very carefully, and even fighting her neighbors over fence line ownership in a court of law!

            Nothing wrong with pointing out a different way of looking at the same thing, I hope! :)

        • FluffyGhostKitten

          What would you call them, in that situation?

          • OWilson

            Mother Nature’s Bounty?

            Potentilal food/medicine sources, for insects, bees, animals, and humans?

          • FluffyGhostKitten

            Perhaps, but not when they’re causing damage to other useful plants.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        One word, Phylloxera. No problem. You are complaining about bushels of free fruit. Make preserves, make wine, enjoy the birds.

        • FluffyGhostKitten

          They’re fox grapes. They point and laugh at Phylloxera.

  • mary

    oldest known wine, China at 9,000 years… though it was not domesticated grapes, but wild ones.

    • GemmaTarlach

      Hi Mary, and thanks for your comment. I specified in my post that I was following the EU definition of wine because the example from Jiahu was actually from a blend of rice, hawthorn, honey and wild grape. It is the earliest evidence of an intentionally fermented beverage, as far as I know, but it would not qualify as the earliest wine in the sense of fermented juice from grapes.

  • Peter E. Humphries

    I am not sure about your aside that “most” grapes are used for wine production. According to the Paris-based OIV ( http://www.oiv.int/public/medias/5479/oiv-en-bilan-2017.pdf ), it was about 47% in 2015, a decline from 2000. It certainly is true that some countries are almost wholly focused on wine grape production, though.

    It seems that “fresh grapes” and “juice” must have a lot of overlap because the percentage reported by OIV for “juice” is very low considering that grape juice is practically the universal base for “from concentrate” and “mixed” juices.

    My own aside is that poor quality fresh grapes and juice grapes can be used to make wine (fermentation hides many problems!), but even good wine grapes rarely make palatable fresh grapes or grape juice.

  • Luke

    Discovering 8000 year old evidence in Georgia doesn’t mean they were the first, rather that they have the oldest surviving artifacts which is not definitive proof.

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