Little do we realise while taking a sip of our favourite wine that the story of its evolution is longer than most civilisations, languages, religions and cultures. The history of wine-making goes back much longer than what we knew till recently. Archaeologists have found the oldest evidence of wine-making during excavations in Georgia and South Caucasus. The unearthed relics were in the form of clay pottery with telltale traces of chemicals associated with wine. The relics date back to around 6,000 BC. The discovery means that it is possible the earliest wine-making was being done possibly half a millennium before what we previously thought.
Prior to this discovery, oldest evidence of wine making was found in 1968 in the jars dating back at least 7,000 years ago. Six vessels found in northern Iran’s Zagros mountains were laced with traces of chemical identifiers of the drink.
Wine became central to western civilisation over the millennia in forms of medicine, social lubricant and tradable commodity. “When we pick up a glass of wine and put it to our lips and taste it, we are recapitulating that history that goes back at least 8,000 years,” said Patrick McGovern, a co-author of the study from the University of Pennsylvania museum of archaeology and anthropology. McGovern was also part of the team that made the 1968 discovery in Iran.
A team of botanists and archaeologists in Georgia collaborated in the project with researchers from Europe and North America for the exploration of two villages in the South Caucasus region, about 50 km south of the capital Tbilisi. During the exploration, researchers were met with a distinct cultural stamp of the neolithic period with the villages dotted with circular mud-brick houses, tools made from stone, signs of cultivating grains like wheat, barley as well as farming cattle and pigs.
The fired clay pottery was of maximum interest for researchers. This is considered to be some of the earliest to have been made in the Near East. One of the jars was around 3-4 ft tall and nearly the same in width. The decorations with blobs, according to the researchers, could be marking for grapes indicating the use of the jars for purposes like pressing, fermenting, storing or serving.
The team spread out to nearby areas in the region to find out to what extent was winemaking a part of life and analyses fragments of pottery collected from two neolithic villages. They also collected and analysed soil sample to help in radiocarbon dating. The total samples examined include 30 pottery fragments and soil samples. The dating of grains and charcoal puts the origin of the pots around 6,000 BC-5,800 BC.
A host of analysis techniques was employed to trace what the soil and pottery fragments had to reveal. The results were published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences. According to the paper, eight fragments including two unearthed previously had traces of tartaric acid. This acid is characteristically found in large quantities of grapes. Associated soil analysed showed much lower levels of the acid. Three other acids that are associated with wine and grapes were found in the samples.
Also, the team found ancient pollen of grape plant at the excavation site. Though the same was not found in the top soil. They also found grape startch particles, fruit fly remains and also cells possibly from the grapevine surface on the inside of one fragment.
The team noted that it was very much possible that the vessels could have been used to store grapes but said that the shape of the vessels were such that makes them ideal for storing liquids and that grapes or raisins would degrade without leaving a trace. They also didn’t find any signs of the pots being used for preparing syrups. Grape juice, on the other hand, ferments within days.
The research findings indicate that the excavation site could well be home to the earliest vintners. Although wine-making remnants have been found at the Jiahu site in China’s Henan province, they were found to be an amalgam of grape, hawthorn, rice beer and honey mead. The evidence in Georgia is, hence, the oldest ever to be found of a pure grape wine, said researchers.
Furthermore, the narrow base of the pots makes it difficult to stand up which also suggests possibility that they could’ve been half-buried in the soil while making wine. This was common practice in Iran and found in the Iranian vessels as well. It is quite possible the same technique was being used centuries ago in Georgia.
The National Wine Agency of Georgia sponsored the exploration for the teams. Stephen Batiuk, co-author of the study and an archaeologist from University of Toronto, said: “The Georgians are absolutely ecstatic. They have been saying for years that they have a very long history of wine-making and so we’re really cementing that position.”