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Iraq and its Ancient Wine Press

There are some countries that instantly come to mind when you’re talking about wine.

Of course, Italy is right at the front of the list. If you’re reading this article, then you’re likely on the Xtrawine website because you’re looking for an Italian wine. And that search probably began either because personal experience has taught you that Italian wines are exceptional or because you’ve heard about the stellar reputation the Italian wine industry has.

France is another obvious country that comes to mind when you hear the word “wine”. That country has a history with the wonderful nectar that runs just as long and deep as Italy’s.

Spain, Portugal, the United States, and even Chile and Australia are also countries that come to mind when you’re talking about the world of wine.

But Iraq?

Not so much.

Iraq doesn’t enter into the conversation for many reasons. There is no real Iraqi wine industry to speak of, with cultural differences even meaning that wine simply isn’t consumed in the country.

If that’s the case, why are we, an Italian wine website, even talking about Iraq?

The answer is simple.

In the latter part of 2021, archaeologists made a discovery that completely transforms how we think about Iraq’s relationship with wine.

What Was the Discovery?

The discovery was a wine press that is believed to be one of the oldest examples of the device that has ever been found in the Middle East. While specific dating on the press is still ongoing, the current estimates state that it’s likely around 2,700 years old.

To give you a better idea of just what that means, this ancient press was in use 700 years before the birth of Christ. In fact, it’s so old that it actually pre-dates the Roman Empire. Some of the most famous promoters of wine, and the empire that we can consider as something of a grandfather of the Italian wine industry, didn’t even exist when this old wine press was in use.

Simply put, this is a phenomenal find, both in terms of its historical importance and because of the location. This wine press shows us that even areas that are not known for their wines, or even in their involvement in the wine industry, have had some sort of influence on the development of wine over the years.

Why is a Wine Press in Iraq?

To answer that question, we have to go on a journey back in time to a period in history when Iraq wasn’t the Iraq that we know today.

Instead, it was Assyria.

One of the oldest known empires, Assyria was predominantly based in what we now know as Iraq, with the country being something of a headquarters in the same way that Italy was something of a home base for the ancient Roman empire. Assyria was so powerful at its peak that the empire took in parts of Kuwait, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria.

That knowledge may make it even more surprising that this wine press was discovered in Iraq. After all, these countries are predominantly Muslim today, meaning that they do not have much demand for the consumption of alcohol. 

However, the Assyrians were not quite so strict when it came to alcohol consumption.

While many still chose not to drink alcohol, they still recognized the fact that wine was a valuable commodity in some areas of the world. And as with any valuable commodity, that meant wine opened up opportunities for trading.

So, the ancient Iraqi wine press may not have made wine for the Assyrians themselves, though we can’t say that for certain. But they would definitely have been used to make wines that could have been sold or traded to people from other countries.

What Does the Wine Press Look Like?

When we think about wine presses, we either think about the massive presses that exist in the modern wine industry or the many examples of older presses that were used in ancient times. Most of these older presses could be operated by single individuals, demonstrating that the wine industry was a fairly niche pursuit hundreds of years ago.

The press discovered in Iraq bucks this trend by offering a level of complexity that is rarely seen in older wine presses.

According to archaeologists, the press contains 14 basins, each of which is a different shape. It’s likely that these basins were used to both store and crush the grapes used to make the wine. The reason we suggest this is that each of these basins has a small canal running from it, with each of these small canals eventually joining to a much larger canal that ferries liquid to a storage area located in another area of the wine press.

So, it seems that the Assyrians used this complex internal network to allow for the creation of as much wine as possible using a single press. This design may also have offered early winemakers some control over how much of each variety of grape they used went into each wine.

What’s most impressive here is that the Iraqi press appears to have been made to produce large quantities of wine. Perhaps this is an indication that the Assyrians had a larger influence on the development of the wine industry, and on wine-making techniques, than they may have received credit for in the past.

The Final Word

The discovery of a 2,700 year old wine press in Iraq is interesting for several reasons.

The historical significance is obvious, as is the interest in the lessons this press can teach us about ancient winemaking. But perhaps the most interesting thing about this press is that it demonstrates just how deeply wine culture permeates the globe. 

Even in Iraq, which is a country that is not known for wine in the modern age, there is a clear history of winemaking that we can examine.

Applications are already in place to make the site of the wine press a UNESCO World Heritage site. If those applications are successful, you may be able to visit Iraq’s oldest wine press yourself one day.

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