The Origin of Wine

ResearchBlogging.orgWith Julia spending the summer and most of the fall in The Republic of Georgia, I’ve been thinking about various political and historical aspects of that country, and one of the things that is claimed to be true is that wine was first invented there.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgRecently, someone asked me (always ask the archaeologist esoteric stuff like this) where wine was first invented. And, recently, we scored some Concord Grapes, which are native to North America (presumably thanks to some bird a long time ago) as opposed to most grapes, and which provide the roots for most (nearly all?) wine grape stock. And, a paper on the genetics of wine came out recently and has been staring at me for a few weeks now. All these things together made me want to update my current knowledge of the origin of wine.

The short and snarky answer to the question of the origin of wine is that we don’t know. Grapes can ferment on the vine, so if that’s wine, then it does not have a cultural origin, but is rather a part of nature, getting birds and small mammals drunk for a very very long time. But that is not what we really mean when we say “wine.” What we mean is something you make from grapes, it contains alcohol, and is stored in some sort of vessel for consumption later. Or sooner. By people, not birds.

Of course, everyone must check Wikipedea these days for everything. I typically check what Wikipedea is saying about what I’m writing on because a) it may have something interesting, b) it may have something annoying and c) if I don’t check some wise guy who reads my blog will and I’ll get any discrepancies between Teh Wiki and Teh Blawg pointed out to me. Frankly, these days Wikipedia is usually pretty good on a wide range of topics, but for the history of wine, I was struck with something annoying:

The history of wine spans thousands of years and is closely intertwined with the history of agriculture, cuisine, civilization and humanity itself.*

Sorry folks, but wine emerges in human history half way through the history of agriculture and only in a limited range of where humanity has lived and has nothing to do with the vast majority of traditional cuisines. No matter how enamored your typical occidento-normative wikicontributoid is with modern haute culture, wine != humanity. In fact, that’s a pretty terrible thing to say, implying that all those people around the world with a history (or a present) unconnected to wine may also be somehow unconnected to humanity. I assume that will be fixed.

It is said in many places, including in Wikipedia, that there is direct evidence of wine manufacture in Georgia about 8,000 years ago but as far as I know, that evidence is either equivocal or not well dated. Patrick McGovern of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania has made the case*, based on domesticated grape pips and residue found in pottery, that Georgian wine dates to between 9 and 8 thousand years ago, but I’ve yet to locate a peer reviewed paper that firmly makes this case. But it is believable.

Wine residue was found on vessel fragments from Hajji Firuz Tepe, Iran (Northern Zagros Mountains) dating to about 7,000 years ago. There is chemical evidence for wine about 6,000 years ago in Armenia. (Armenia is right next to Georgia.) And, genetic studies suggest that domestic grapes come mainly from the “middle east” (which is a vague term) and inter-pollinated with local European wild grapes after domestication.

The study I mentioned above was published in PNAS and happens to be OpenAccess, so you can read it yourself. Here’s a scaled down version of the abstract from that paper.

… we characterize genome-wide patterns of genetic variation in over 1,000 samples of the domesticated grape, Vitis vinifera subsp. vinifera, and its wild relative, V. vinifera subsp. sylvestris …. We ?nd support for a Near East origin of vinifera and present evidence of introgression from local sylvestris as the grape moved into Europe. High levels of genetic diversity and rapid linkage disequilibrium (LD) decay have been maintained in vinifera, which is consistent with a weak domestication bottleneck followed by thousands of years of widespread vegetative propagation. The considerable genetic diversity within vinifera, however, is contained within a complex network of close pedigree relationships that has been generated by crosses among elite cultivars. We show that ?rst-degree relationships are rare between wine and table grapes and among grapes from geographically distant regions. Our results suggest that although substantial genetic diversity has been maintained in the grape subsequent to domestication, there has been a limited exploration of this diversity. We propose that the adoption of vegetative propagation was a double-edged sword: Although it provided a bene?t by ensuring true breeding cultivars, it also discouraged the generation of unique cultivars through crosses. The grape currently faces severe pathogen pressures, and the long-term sustainability of the grape and wine industries will rely on the exploitation of the grape’s tremendous natural genetic diversity.

The article doesn’t really provide a better way of dating the origin of wine or placing it on the map, but the genetic results are consistent with prevailing thinking on a “middle eastern” (which here would include Georgia) origin and a Neolithic but not beginning of the neolithic date.

So wine was probably made from grapes first cultivated in the southern Caucasus. From there the technology or the idea spread into the Anatolian region and nearby areas. So, between around 8,000 years ago (or somewhat less?) and 6,000 years ago, wine became established in places where people were settled, could grow the fruit, and had the interest. Like beer, I would guess that wine served the purpose of preserving those calories grown on early farms. (Beer was probably first made in the near east as a way to store barley.) But of course it would also get everybody drunk. So, you harvest your food, make the wine, eat all the fresh stuff and sometime in the middle of winter, you are consuming more and more wine and less and less bread. By January or February everyone is running around drunk and by planting season you need a sort of alarm clock to wake up and start working the farm again. Thus, one would have to invent astronomy to make calendars and stone-henge like structures to tell you when to get back to work. Yes, yes, I know this is all wild speculation but it all makes so much sense. I wonder if you could tell the difference between the effects of beer on society in areas where barley was grown vs. the effects of wine on society in areas where grapes were grown. One of the major downsides of Islam is, of course, wiping out the beer tradition in the Levant and surrounding areas, so we may never know!

It is also interesting that wine arrives so late in Western Europe. Various estimates put the arrival of wine in that region less than 3,000 years ago.

Finally, getting back to Georgia, we have this: As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Feasting is a phenomenon that either emerged early in human prehistory and stuck, or was reinvented again and again by various groups, such that it is widespread and seems to have common cultural trappings in many places it is found. The Georgians have a traditional feast, and at this feast there are toasts. And with each toast, I’m told, one must drain one’s glass, and traditionally that glass is filled with wine. Georgian wine is not strong, so this works. (And by the way, Georgian wine is good, at least the stuff I’ve had, so do give it a try.)

The problem is the Russians. The Russians have given the Georgians a long list of problems ever since Peter the Great and Catherine decided it was an important region to invade and stuff (and invading Georgia has become a tradition in Russia, apparently). And one of the problems the Russians gave to Georgia is, of course, Vodka. It is my understanding that during Georgian feasts, the glasses are the same as they always were …. large wine glasses … and they are always filled to the brim and they are always emptied at every toast during the feast. But vodka has replaced wine. That’s a problem.

So, as they say in Georgia: “?????????”

Myles, Sean, Boyko, Adam, Owens, Christopher, Brown, Patrick, Grassi, Fabrizio, Aradhya, Mallikarjuna, Prins, Bernard, Reynolds,Andy, Chia, Jer-Ming, Ware, Doreen, Bustamante, Carlos, & Buckler, Edward (2011). Genetic structure and domestication history of the grape PNAS

McGovern PE (2003) Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture
(Princeton Univ Press, Princeton).

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15 thoughts on “The Origin of Wine

  1. Do we know what was stored in the oldest jugs or pots? Do we know when pottery originated?

    Not quite related to wine, except in that they became two of the common trade goods at some point, is when the olive was first cultivated for its oil.

    Another question: when were skillets first available? Did the bronze age have anything like a skillet or griddle? Cooking had to be quite different before metal.

  2. I’m pretty sure the skillet is very recent. Pottery is quite a bit older than wine, and when it originates varies from region to region.

    The earliest pottery vessels in the near east are probably around 7,000 years ago.

  3. Greg Laden: “Pottery is quite a bit older than wine.

    How do we know? If the oldest evidence for wine is pottery residue, that leaves open the possibility that prior to pottery being used for the purpose, wine was fermented and carried in leather bladders, that never survived. Whenever I think about archaeology, there are two things that I try to keep in mind. 1) It’s unlikely that the oldest example we have of some technology is contemporaneous with its first use. 2) Our views of the past are shaped by the technologies that leave a trace. Many don’t.

    Now, yeah, I would turn my nose up at wine fermented in a leather bladder. Blech! But the question at the time wasn’t wine-in-leather-bladder vs. wine-in-oak-barrel. It was wine vs. no wine. And that’s a pretty damned easy question to answer!

  4. “And, recently, we scored some Concord Grapes, which are native to North America (presumably thanks to some bird a long time ago) as opposed to most grapes, and which provide the roots for most (nearly all?) wine grape stock.”

    At least a dozen grape species are native in North America, and they are widely distributed — there are several species in the eastern US, several more in Mexico, 2 in CA and there’s at least one more in AZ. Probably more in the middle part of the country, where I never go. N Am. may have more species than Europe. No need to invoke a bird to explain grape distribution. Vitis is widespread in the northern temperate zone. But it’s mostly just one species (V. vinifera) out of 60 worldwide that’s been selected for wine production, and that one is normally grafted onto North American roots, as you note. Concord and a couple of others are used directly to a limited degree or locally.

  5. Living on nearly the same latitude as St. Petersberg, I can understand the Russian fixation with the Georgian Republic. Viticulture, even with a warming world, fails if one lacks a greenhouse. Itâ??s the wine, I tells ya.

    Not only binds and small mammals become intoxicated. In late November several years ago, a mature bull moose in downtown Anchorage (moose are all over here and fully adapted to urban living) was seem eating fermented crab apples (much used as an ornamental) and becoming noticeably intoxicated. This, after entangling his rack in some of the lights strung, during the winter months, in the trees of the town square open space in the heart of the city. He was dubbed Buzzwinkle.

  6. Achrachno, I had no idea there were so many wild North American grapes. Concord grapes are, of course, a cultivar. In any event, grapes did disperse from the Old World to the New World and I’ll continue to invoke birds as a distinct possibility. Or are you suggesting that they predate 65mya or so and were present when the Atlantic was closed? Could be, I suppose.

    Splatter, I think it may also have been part of the plan to have a southern port free of ice all year round. And the vacation spots on the sea.

  7. One other thing which doesn’t seem to be covered in the post is the question of safe hydration. For much of human history and in many places, local water supplies were not guaranteed to be safe. There is a reason that turning water into wine is listed among the miracles attributed to Yeshua bin Yosef: wine was safe to drink (the alcohol kills certain harmful bacteria) but water, at that time and place, was not. The Chinese hit upon a different solution to this problem: tea (boiling the water is another way to make it safe to drink). Sewage systems and water treatments were great advances in human technology precisely because they allow people access to drinkable water without the dehydrating side effects of ethanol or caffeine.

  8. As the author of the “annoying” Wikipedia line, I think you misunderstood what it is stating. It is not stating that wine lead to humanity or what not.

    Rather, it is saying that the history of wine *is influenced by* the history of agriculture, cuisine, civilization and humanity. It is so closely intertwined that you can’t really get a full scope on the history of wine without understanding the history of the other four since they all influenced how wine developed.

    In fact, if anything the article implies that wine doesn’t exist without humanity, not the other way around.

    But, anyone can read into text what they wish to read into, and I apologize for the annoyance. However, you are free to recommend a better way of conveying those sentiments and I encourage you to post on the article’s talk page with your thoughts on this or any other Wikipedia article that you find annoying or confusing.

  9. I worked on a neolithic archaeological site one summer. If I recall correctly, pottery showed up in a layer that was about 7000 years old. And this was on a remote Greek island that never had much of a population center, so it must have been a widespread technology at that time.

  10. The first fermented foods were likely not alcohol generating. Lactic acid fermentation is pretty common.

    and is probably a better way to preserve food than fermentation to alcohol, alcohol content needs to be pretty high to inhibit spoilage. Low pH can do the same thing but with less calorie loss and can be used to preserve vegetables (and vitamin C) and proteins (pickled fish). Low pH also kills many pathogens.

  11. “And one of the problems the Russians gave to Georgia is, of course, Vodka”.

    Georgians very seldom drink vodka during the feast as Russian do. Vodka- “araki” or grappa “Chacha” in Georgian, is drunk from small glasses usually in winter or in Mountainous regions of Georgia.

  12. George, thanks for the input and I’m sure you’re right. But I know of these other Georgians who use the big glass for the Vodka.

    Of course, they are archaeologists so that could be the reason.

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