Welcome to the Clara Wine History of Wine series: your go-to guide for everything you need to know about the history of wine. We’re kicking the series off by exploring the oldest wines in the world. We should clarify that these are the oldest discovered traces of wine and it’s unlikely that we’ll ever be able to determine exactly when wine was first made. This is because the origins of wine predate written records and modern archaeologists are still unable to determine exactly when the first cultivation of wild grapevines occurred.
The Oldest Wines in the World
In Wine Grapes, a book published in 2013, the authors posit a theory that wine first originated when humans picked berries and begun collecting them after developing a penchant for their sugary taste. They collected them in such quantities that they began to ferment – the resulting juice was low-alcohol wine.
Theories still remain vague about when intentional, rather than incidental, wine-making began. However, it’s likely that the development of pottery during the late Neolithic period (around 11000 BC) would have made the process a lot easier, as storage containers could have been produced. Nevertheless, any evidence of wine-making during this period has yet to be discovered. The evidence that we do have actually dates several millennia later.
Get ready for not only a trip back in time, but a trip around the world, as we look at some of the earliest archaeological evidence of wine. Let’s begin in China, over 9000 years ago.
China (7000 BC): Wine… and Music?
Evidence of the oldest known wine in the world was found in 2004 in Jiahu in Central China’s Henan Province. At approximately 9000-years old, the wine was not made solely with grapes but a blend of fermented rice, honey and fruit. Scientists made the discovery after examining residues of ancient shards of pots from the Stone Age site in north China.
This site was also the founding location of the world’s oldest playable musical instrument – flutes made from bones. Wine and music? Sounds like the perfect combination to us!
Georgia (6000 BC): The 8000-Year-Old Vintage
The most recent discovery in this guide, last year scientists found pottery fragments that were approximately 8000-years-old and contained residual wine compounds. The earthenware jars, some of which bore images of grape clusters and men dancing, were found in sites south of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Scientists believe that the jars show “the oldest example of the domestication of a wild-growing Eurasian grapevine solely for the production of wine.”
It’s thought that the wine was made in a similar way to traditional methods used today. The fruit, stems and seeds of the grapes were crushed, then fermented together in the jars.
More interestingly, biochemical tests found that the ancient people were deliberately adding tree resin to the grape juice. The resin would have acted as an anti-bacterial preservative, enabling the wine to be stored for long periods of time. Scientists believe that the wine may have even tasted like the resin-preserved wine, retsina, which is still popular in Greece today.
The scientist who led the study, Professor McGovern, suggested that there may have been more to the wine than simple enjoyment. In fact, he said that the sculpted images on the jars showed Stone Age people celebrating the grape vine. He believed that this could signify the origin of Greek and Roman wine cults.
Considerably larger than today’s 750ml bottles, the jars had a capacity of 9 litres. Similar jars, called qvevri, are still used for wine-making in Georgia today.
Iran (5960 BC): The Wine Jars
Prior to the discovery in Georgia, scientists thought that they’d found the earliest evidence of wine-making when they found a number of ‘Wine Jars’ at Hasanlu in Hajji Firuz, Iran. The jars were found lining an interior wall of what was believed to be a kitchen in a Neolithic house in Iran.
Like the jars found in Georgia, analysis showed that they had contained a resinated wine. This suggests that terebinth tree or pine resin was added to the wine as a preservative.
The different colours of the residues found on the jars suggests that there were red and white varieties. As the wine jars were found in a kitchen, it seems as though having a glass of wine whilst cooking may date back a few thousand years more than you’d first think!
Greece (4500 BC): Charred Pips and Trodden Skins
Greece has a long history of wine-making, which we’ll be exploring in more detail in a future post. However, the first traces of wine-making in Greece date back to 4500 BC. In 2013, scientists discovered charred grape pips and compressed skins at a site Philippi, eastern Macedonia, the first appearance of domesticated grapes in Greece. Many traces of wild grape vines have also been found at various sites in Greece.
Sicily (4000 BC): Traces in Terracotta
We’re nearing the end of part one of our History of Wine guide, finishing in Italy. In August 2017, researchers discovered traces of one of the oldest wines in the world in terracotta jars in a cave in Sicily. Prior to this discovery, scientists believed that winemaking had developed in Italy in 1200 BC. However, it seems as though the Italians were enjoying wine long before this date!
Residue samples were taken from late copper age storage jars. The jars were found in a cave near a fishing harbour on Sicily’s south-west coast. Analysis revealed the presence of tartaric acid and its salt, more commonly known as cream of tartar. This acid develops naturally during winemaking and is the main acid component in grapes. The discovery allowed researchers to confirm that the jars were used as wine containers.
Step into the Future
Well, it’s been a whirlwind trip, delving into the oldest wines in the world. It seems that new sites are being discovered each year and who knows which country may hold the accolade of producing the ‘world’s oldest wine’ by the end of 2018. Fine wines may get better with age, and we may be more than a little intrigued to know what these prehistorical wines tasted like, but we’ll stick with the modern wines for now.
Luckily for us, we’ve got the clarawine.com taste quiz to help choose the best wines for our palettes. Why not try it yourself?
See you next time, when we’ll be travelling to Armenia and the world’s oldest discovered winery!