Judging by a rare archaeological find, the world of winemaking – from California to France and all locations in between – may trace its roots back thousands of years to the mountainous Caucasus country of Georgia.
Georgia, famous for its endless rounds of heartfelt toasts that can run into the wee hours of the morning, just unseated Iran as the home of the first wine produced from the Eurasian grape, popular with millions of wine-lovers around the globe.
The study by a multinational team of scientists led by Patrick McGovern, a molecular archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, says the earliest evidence for grape wine and viniculture from the Near East appeared around 6,000–5,800 BC during the early Neolithic Period at a place called Gadachrili Gora, roughly 50km south of the capital, Tbilisi.
Although this may sound like the chance of a lifetime to sample an 8,000-year-old vintage bottle, the ‘wine’ only exists as dried samples that must be painstakingly collected from the surface of pottery jars that had been buried in the villages as part of the aging and fermentation process.
Although the academic paper makes for rather dry reading, there are some fascinating tidbits of information that many oenophiles will easily relate to.
“Wine is central to civilization as we know it in the West,” reads the introduction to the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “As a medicine, social lubricant, mind-altering substance, and highly valued commodity, wine became the focus of religious cults, pharmacopoeias, cuisines, economies, and society in the ancient Near East.”
Even the pottery jars – ‘qvevri’ – that held the wine holds a certain fascination. Unbeknownst to the craftsmen at the time, the natural composition of these vessels were perfect for carrying out scientific studies on them thousands of years in the future.
“[P]ottery has the advantage of being porous and an ionic (zeolite-like) material that absorbs liquids in particular and preserves them from environmental contamination for millennia until they are chemically extracted,” the study mentioned. “The plasticity of the clay is ideal for producing vessel shapes suited to specific purposes, and once fired, the material is virtually indestructible.”
The discoveries in Georgia knock Iran off its pedestal as the birthplace of the booze-up, with its wine dating back to 5,400-5,000 BC. As far as the first fermented beverage goes, China holds that record with a drink that McGovern traced back to 7,000 BC. That drink was most likely a “cocktail” made from rice, honey and wild grapes, whereas the finding in Georgia derived from “pure grape wine.”