A Short History of Wine

Rod Phillips

Excerpt from A Short History of Wine

Chapter One

On the Trail of the Earliest Wines: From the Fertile Crescent to Egypt


The origins of wine are as cloudy as the first vintages must have been. We will never know who first allowed grape juice to ferment to the point that it became wine, just as we will never know who ground grain and baked it to produce the first loaf of bread. But the impossibility of tracing the very first batch of wine ever made has not deterred archaeologists and historians from searching for the earliest evidence, a quest that has taken them back more than 7,000 years. There is, of course, no possibility that 7,000-year-old wine could have survived in liquid form. What was not consumed at the time would have evaporated long ago. The most we can expect to find now is earthenware jars or other vessels bearing evidence that they might have held wine: the remains of grapes -- seeds, stalks and empty skins -- or stains and residues from wine. Evidence of this kind has been found in pottery jars at a number of sites in the Middle East dating from the neolithic period (Late Stone Age), which lasted from about 8500 to 4000 BC.

Even then, seeds and other residue of grapes are not in themselves evidence of wine. Jars were used to store both dry and liquid goods, and jars with grape remains could have originally contained fresh grapes, raisins or even unfermented grape juice. But it is likely that grapes or grape juice stored in jars would ferment and become wine, especially in the warm temperatures of that part of the world. More important, we also know from literary and pictorial sources from later periods that wine was fermented and stored in jars and that skins, seeds or other grape residue was often left in it, rather than being filtered or strained out.

The most persuasive evidence of early wine has been obtained by a combination of chemical analysis and archaeological inferences. At a number of neolithic sites in the Zagros mountains, in what is now western Iran, archaeologists have located jars that have reddish and yellowish deposits on their interior walls. Analysis of these deposits has shown them to be rich in tartaric acid and calcium tartrate. These are good indicators that they are the remains of a grape product that evaporated thousands of years ago, because grapes are rare among fruits in that they accumulate tartaric acid. Although it is still not direct, unassailable evidence of wine, the presence of a liquid grape product in a jar leads us to assume that wine must have been made, for, as suggested above, at room temperature in that region any grape juice kept in a container for more than a short time would have fermented into wine. It is not clear why some of the deposits were red and others yellow, but it is possible that they are the remains of different kinds of wine.

The earliest of these neolithic finds were six nine-litre jars embedded in the floor of a mud brick building, dating from 5400-5000 BC, in the community of Hajji Firuz Tepe in the northern region of the Zagros mountains. These vessels contained not only the residues appropriate to grape juice but also bore deposits of resin. Resin from the terebinth tree that grew wild in the region was widely used as a preservative in ancient wine because it has the ability to kill certain bacteria, and tree resin (generally pine) is still used in Greek retsina wine.

Beyond the fact that wine existed in Hajji Firuz seven thousand years ago, we know little about its derivation or consumption. The community is in a region where vines grew wild in ancient times (and still do), but it is not clear whether the wine was produced from wild or cultivated grapes. The volume of wine that could have been kept in these vessels -- a total of fifty-four litres -- suggests that wine was made on a fairly large scale. Consumption, however, could have been gradual and extended over the year following the harvest: not only was the wine preserved by resin but clay stoppers about the same size as the jars' mouths were located close by, suggesting that the wine might have been protected effectively from the air.

Further evidence of ancient wine comes from Godin Tepe, a trading post and administrative and military centre also in the Zagros mountains, but much further south than Hajji Firuz. There, archaeologists discovered thirty- and sixty-litre earthenware jars dating from 3500-3000 BC, just after the neolithic period. The deposits in these jars not only contained tartaric acid but they lay in a line along one side of the interior of the jars from the base to the shoulder. This suggests that the vessels were lying on their sides when they contained the liquid and that the deposits remained when the liquid evaporated. These jars also had clay stoppers, which reinforces this impression; the vessels might have been stored like bottles in modern wine cellars to protect the wine from oxygen, which would turn it into vinegar. Other discoveries at Godin Tepe included a large basin that might have been used for treading grapes and a funnel that could have been used for straining grape juice before or after fermentation.

Future discoveries might well push the date of the earliest known wine back even further or, more likely, broaden the known geographical range of early viniculture. Even so, we will never know who first made wine or the circumstances under which it was made. This has not deterred scholars from speculating about possible scenarios. One suggests that as pre-neolithic humans foraged for food, they gathered wild grapes into an animal hide or crude wooden container and that some of the berries at the bottom ruptured and exuded their juice. 'As the grapes are gradually eaten over the next day or two, this juice will ferment... Reaching...'
Continues

A Short History of Wine. Copyright � by Rod Phillips. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.--From A Short History of Wine, by Rod Phillips. ©October 16, 2001, Ecco Press used by permission.