A few weeks ago, we wrote on this very blog about the Speyer Wine Bottle. Dating back to the fourth century AD, this bottle has long been considered the oldest wine vintage in the world. Some experts even believe that it might still be drinkable, assuming it’s capable of withstanding the many changes that would occur to its structure should the bottle ever be opened.
The bottle has taken pride of place in the Pfalz Historical Museum in Germany for many years, with many visitors marvelling at a 1700 year old wine that has stood the test of time.
While the bottle still stands as the oldest bottle of wine in the world, the history of wine stretches back much earlier than 1700 years. Excavations in regions as diverse as Italy, Greece, and China have led us to believe that wine has existed, in some form, since 5000 BC.
Evidence of wine production has been found in old pottery and other items that have been excavated in regions across the world. However, it’s a new discovery that is making waves, and may prove that wine production stretches back even further than we may have believed possible.
The Georgian Pots
Before we look at the latest discovery, we should note that previous evidence led us to believe that winemaking was around 7000 years old. Traces of wine dating back to 5000 BC were discovered in the Zagros mountains, which are now Iranian territory.
However, recent discoveries in Georgia, a small country that borders Turkey, indicate that people may have been drinking wine 8000 years ago. That would mean that prehistoric humans from the Stone Age had advanced to the point where they could use grapes to create their own primitive forms of wine.
So, how was the discovery made?
Archaeologists were excavating 30 miles south of Tbilisi, which is the Georgian capital, when they came across a collection of pottery fragments. Detailed examination of those fragments showed that they contained a chemical signature that suggests they may once have held grapes that had been fermented into wine.
Researchers have gone on to speculate that the drinking of wine would have played an important role in Neolithic Georgian “society”. It is likely that the wine discovered in the pots would have been used for all things, from early medicine through to celebrations. It’s strange how that has come full circle. In the modern world, wine is often used as a celebratory drink. Furthermore, research has shown that a glass of Italian red wine per day can have numerous positive effects on the human body.
Those same researchers also believe that the wine would have been consumed at meal time, and that the early Georgians may even have incorporated toasting into the mix.
This is the case according to Stephen Batiuk, who serves as a senior researcher with the University of Toronto, which made the discovery. He says: “As a medicine, social lubricant, mind-altering substance, and highly-valued commodity, wine became the focus of religious cults, pharmacopoeias, cuisines, economics, and society throughout the ancient Near East.
“The infinite range of flavours and aromas of today’s 8,000-10,000 grape varieties are the end result of the domesticated Eurasian grapevine being transplanted and crossed with wild grapevines elsewhere over and over again.”
He went on to say that it’s possible that scientists may discover even earlier examples of wine production than this. His team think that crushing grapes in order to produce a form of wine as a practice that started 1000 years before the date of the latest discovery. This would mean that people have been drinking wine since 7000 BC.
The Chemical Method
The research team used several modern chemical extraction methods to find something called tartaric acid. Along with the presences of several natural acids, such as citric and malic, the presence of tartaric acid is what tipped them off to the fact that the pots were used to hold wine.
Dr Batiuk, continues, adding: “We believe this is the oldest example of the domestication of a wild-growing Eurasian grapevine solely for the production of wine.”
He continues: “Pottery, which was ideal for processing, serving and storing fermented beverages, was invented in this period together with many advances in art, technology and cuisine.”
Of particular interest is the fact that the evidence of Neolithic agriculture and tool-use shows that winemaking may not have been unique to the region. As that knowledge spread to Syria, Turkey and other countries surrounding Georgia, it’s likely that those regions too would have begun developing their own wines.
Dr Batiuk goes on to note the importance of these early grape varieties, noting: “The Eurasian grapevine that now accounts for 99.9 per cent of wine made in the world today, has its roots in Caucasia.”
So what we’re looking at here are the earliest signs of grape production, and perhaps even the foundation of the entire Italian and global wine industries themselves.
Can I See the Discovery?
You can, if you take a trip to Georgia. Some of the findings are on display in the museum of Georgia, though they will look just like regular pots to the naked eye.
In fact, Dr Batiuk notes that the pots are so valuable that it’s unlikely that they will ever be moved. He pointed out that a recent display at the Bordeaux wine museum used duplicates, instead of the original pots.
The Final Word
The Italian wine industry has always respected the traditions and history that make it what it is today. However, that history stretches back further than many of us may realise. This recent discovery shows us that wine production was common, even during the prehistoric period of humanities existence.
It is only due to the modern chemical extraction methods that we have today that this discovery could have been made. If these pots were found even 50 years earlier, it’s likely that they would have been held up as an example of early Stone Age crafts, rather than as the evidence of prehistoric wine that they truly are.
We know one thing for sure. We want to make a trip to Georgia to experience these important monuments to the wine industry’s history up close.