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Friday, January 27, 2012

Ancient Sour Grapes

A relief from ancient Egypt, circa 1,500 BCE, showing the
growing of grapes, and the production and trade of wine.

The earliest evidence of wine production (oenology) is from Georgia (Russia, not the U.S.) around 6,000 BCE.  This was determined by a gene-mapping project in 2006 where 110 common cultivars were analyzed and found to originate in Georgia.  Evidence has also been found in sites in Iran (5,000 BCE) and Armenia (4,000 BCE), while domestication of the grapevine seems to have occurred in the Near East, Sumer, and Egypt around 3,000 BCE.  There are archaeological sites in Macedonia from 4,500 BCE that reveal the earliest wine production centers in Europe.

A map of archaeological sites were wine or olive agriculture were found.
Click on this link for a larger view of the map.

Wines are made with a number of fruits and grains.  They are usually named for whatever their main ingredient is, such as strawberry wine or rice wine.  The term "wine" in many of these cases refers to the face they are alcoholic beverages rather than how they are produced.  Wines made of grains are closer to beer than wine. Grape wine is made with fermenting crushed grapes and yeast, which consumes the sugars in the grapes converting them to alcohol.  Grapes have a natural chemical balance which allows them to ferment without additions such as sugars or enzymes.

Grapes that will be made into wine.

Actually, very little is known about the beginnings of oenology.  Gatherers and early farmers may have used wild plants.  As the production process was established, the need may have arisen for a steady supply, and certain types of grapes may have been preferred.  In 2007, the earliest known winery was found in Armenia that has been determined to be 6,100 years old.  Areni-1, as the winery is known, had fermentation vats, a press, storage jars, and pottery shards.  The site was determined to be a burial site, so the wine produced there is believed to have been intended for rituals involving burials.  The people who lived here at this time are unknown, but the site was abandoned when the roof caved in.  Sheep dung prevented fungi, thus preserving the site.

Areni-1 with wine press in front of sign and fermentation vat at right.
Image courtesy of Gregory Areshian.

The word "wine" is from a Proto-Indo-European stem *win-o.  Our modern viniculture comes from ancient Greece, where the grapes grown today are similar or identical to those grown in ancient times.  Wines were known to both Minoan and Mycenaean cultures.  There was a festival in Mycenaean times known as the "festival of the new wine" or "month of the new wine" - me-tu-wo ne-wo. This is the earliest known term referring to wine.  Because of the amphorae found all over the ancient world with Greek art and styling, it is possible that the Greeks introduced wine to many areas, including Egypt.

An Attic black-figure amphora with Dionysus,
circa 6th century BCE.  This is attributed to the
Priam Painter, active in Athens at that time.

In ancient Egypt, wine was used for rituals.  By the end of the Old Kingdom (2650 - 2152 BCE) there were five types of wine considered essential for the afterlife. Although wine was commonly known, the ancient Egyptians were superstitious about its resemblance to blood.  Beer was the preferred drink of the people.

The transportation of wine in barrels across a river, circa 63 BCE - 14 CE.

In ancient Greece and Rome, wines were related to religion with the worship of Dionysus and Bacchus. Wine became a part of the everyday diet, and became big business.  The winemaking regions of western Europe were for the most part established during the Roman Empire.  Barrels were invented by the Gauls, which were easy to roll; later the introduction of glass bottles by the Syrians were also used.  After the Greeks invented the screw (probably Archimedes) it was used throughout the Mediterranean for wine and oil presses.  Roman villas were commonly outfitted with wine presses.  The Romans are credited with naming wines according to their regions, in essence creating a brand of sorts.

A jue, or Chinese bronze beaker used to serve wine.
It has been attributed to the 18th C. BCE, which
would indicate it was made and used for rice wine.
Image courtesy of Art Poskanzer/Wikipedia.

After the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE), contact with Hellenistic kingdoms introduced grapes into China.  But the Chinese made wine in the 2nd century BCE, before this introduction, using wild grapes. Rice wine was the preferred drink, and grape wine was reserved for the Emperor.  Marco Polo noted that rice wine was more common that grape wine in the 1280s.  Drinking wine was an activity that went along with chess, music, good conversation, meditation, poetry, and calligraphy, among other loftier activities.  The phrase for this was being in the company of "drinking guests."

Pressing wine from a 14th century book, the Tacuinum Sanitatis,
 a  medieval handbook on health and well-being.

In the Middle East wine was imported, as the arid climate was not suitable for growing grapes.  When Islam came about, alcoholic drinks were forbidden, but there are records of medicinal wines being used.  Muslim alchemists worked on distillation, resulting in ethanol, which was used for perfumes.  This is also the first time wine was distilled into brandy.

A woman pouring wine from a 17th century wall
painting  in the Chehel Sotoun Palace, Iran.

When the western Roman Empire fell around 500 CE, the Roman Catholic Church carried on the tradition of viniculture.  Wine was important to the Catholic Mass, so monasteries began producing it.  They produced enough to distribute for secular use throughout Europe.  This is when meads began to be made as well.  Wines were kept in barrels and not aged, but drunk young.  Since ancient times, wines were watered down to control alcohol consumption.

The oldest known bottle of (liquid) wine.  It has been
dated to 300 CE, and was found in a Roman sarcophagus.
It has lots of sediment and a thick mixture which may
 be olive oil.  Although cork closures were known, they
were not commonly used.  Instead olive oil was floated
on the top where it prevented evaporation and oxidation.
Image courtesy of the Historisches Museum der Pfalz.

Vitis vinifera was the species of grape which became most successful, and is still the standard for most of the world's wines.  "Vinland", the new country that explorer Leif Eriksson discovered in 1000 CE, was named for the native grapes that grew there, but which ultimately weren't desirable for wine.  Later on European settlers brought vinifera vines but they didn't take well to American soil. Eventually vinifera vines were grafted to native rootstocks, and the resulting plants were successful.

From St. Peter Port, Guernsey.

Wine was never an invention, but a discovery.  Its development depended on finding the right kinds of grapes and growing them.  Today we continue a very long tradition that has endured for millenia.  À votre santé!

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.
For a detailed look at how wine is depicted in fiction, see 
OenoLit and the Private Library.

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