By Culturekiosque Staff
LOS ANGELES, 24 JANUARY 2011 Analysis by a UCLA-led team of
scientists has confirmed the discovery of the oldest complete wine
production facility ever found, including grape seeds, withered grape
vines, remains of pressed grapes, a rudimentary wine press, a clay vat
apparently used for fermentation, wine-soaked potsherds, and even a cup
and drinking bowl.
The facility, which dates back to roughly 4100 B.C. 1,000 years
before the earliest comparable find was unearthed by a team of
archaeologists from Armenia, the United States and Ireland in the same
mysterious Armenian cave complex where the discovery of an ancient
leather shoe was announced last summer.
"For the first time, we have a complete archaeological picture of wine
production dating back 6,100 years," said Gregory Areshian, co-director of
the excavation and assistant director of UCLA's Cotsen Institute of
wine press (in front of sign) and fermentation
Photo: Gregory Areshian
An analysis of the discovery, which received support from the National
Geographic Society, is presented in an article published on-line on 11
January in the peer-reviewed Journal of Archaeological Science.
"This is, so far, the oldest relatively complete wine production
facility, with its press, fermentation vats and storage jars in situ,"
said Hans Barnard, the article's lead author and a UCLA Cotsen Institute
Cave Outside Armenian Village
The discovery of what appeared to be ancient grape seeds in 2007
inspired the team to begin excavating Areni-1, a cave complex located in a
canyon where the Little Caucasus Mountains approach the northern end of
the Zagros Mountain range, near Armenia's southern border with Iran. The
cave is outside a tiny Armenian village still known for its wine-making
Under Areshian and Boris Gasparyan, co-director of the project, the dig
continued through September, when the vat was excavated.
Radiocarbon analysis by researchers at UC Irvine and Oxford University
has dated the installation and associated artifacts to between 4100 B.C.
and 4000 B.C., or the Late Chalcolithic Period, also known as the Copper
Age in recognition of the technological advances that paved the way for
metal to replace stone tools.
Archaeologists found one shallow basin made of pressed clay measuring
about 3 feet by 3-and-a-half feet. Surrounded by a thick rim that would
have contained juices, and positioned so as to drain into the deep vat,
the basin appears to have served as a wine press. Similarly structured
wine-pressing devices were in use as recently as the 19th century
throughout the Mediterranean and the Caucasus, Areshian said. No evidence
was found of an apparatus to smash the grapes against the wine press, but
the absence does not trouble the archaeologists.
"People obviously were stomping the grapes with their feet, just the
way it was done all over the Mediterranean and the way it was originally
done in California," Areshian said.
All around and on top of the wine press archaeologists found handfuls
of grape seeds, remains of pressed grapes and grape must, and dozens of
desiccated vines. After examining the seeds, paleobotanists from three
separate institutions determined the species to be Vitis vinifera
vinifera, the domesticated variety of grape still used to make wine.
Telltale Evidence of Grapes
The vat, at just over 2 feet in height, would have held between 14 and
15 gallons of liquid, Areshian estimates. A dark gray layer clung to three
potsherds two of which rested on the press and the third which was still
attached to the vat. Analysis of the residue by chemists at UCLA's Pasarow
Mass Spectrometry Laboratory confirmed the presence of the plant pigment
malvidin, which is known to appear in only one other fruit native to the
"Because no remnants of pomegranates were found in the excavated area,
we're confident that the vessels held something made with grape juice,"
The size of the vessel during an era that predated mechanical
refrigeration by many millennia points to the likelihood that the liquid
was wine, the researchers stress.
"At that time, there was no way to preserve juice without fermenting
it," Areshian said. "At this volume, any unfermented juice would sour
immediately, so the contents almost certainly had to be wine."
The team also unearthed one cylindrical cup made of some kind of animal
horn and one complete drinking bowl of clay, as well as many bowl
The closest comparable collection of remains was found in the late
1980s by German archaeologists in the tomb of the ancient Egyptian king
Scorpion I, the researchers said. Dating to around 3150 B.C., that find
consisted of grape seeds, grape skins, dried pulp and imported ceramic
jars covered inside with a yellow residue chemically consistent with
After the Areni-1 discovery, the next earliest example of an actual
wine press is two and a half millennia younger: Two plaster basins that
appear to have been used to press grapes between 1650 B.C. and 1550 B.C.
were excavated in what is now Israel's West Bank in 1963.
Over the years, archaeologists have claimed to find evidence of wine
dating as far back as 6000 B.C.- 5500 B.C. And references to the art and
craft of wringing an inebriant from grapes appear in all kinds of ancient
settings. After Noah's Ark landed on Mount Ararat, for instance, the Bible
says he planted a vineyard, harvested grapes, produced wine and got drunk.
Ancient Egyptian murals depict details of wine-making. Whatever form it
takes, early evidence of wine production provides a window into a key
transition in human development, scientists say.
"Deliberate fermentation of carbohydrates into alcohol has been
suggested as a possible factor that prompted the domestication of wild
plants and the development of ceramic technology," said Barnard, who
teaches in the UCLA Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures.
Three Lines of Inquiry Point to Wine-Making
In addition to its age and wealth of wine-making elements, the Areni-1
find is notable for its numerous levels of confirmation. In a field where
claims often rest on one or two sets of collaborating evidence, this find
is supported by radiocarbon dating, paleobotanical analysis and a new
approach to analyzing wine residue based on the presence of malvidin. Most
prior claims of ancient wine have rested on the presence of tartaric acid
which is present in grapes but also, at least in some level, in many
other fruits and vegetables or on the presence of tree resins that were
added to preserve the wine and improve its taste, as is done today with
retsina, a wine flavored with pine resin.
"Tartaric acid alone can't act as a reliable indicator for wine,"
Areshian said. "It is present in too many other fruits and vegetables,
including hawthorn, which still is a popular fruit in the area, but also
in a range of other fruits, including tamarind, star fruit and yellow
"Resins could indicate wine, but because they were used for a large
number of other purposes, ranging from incense to glue, they also are
unreliable indicators for wine," Barnard said. "Moreover, we have no idea
how wide the preference for retsina-like wine spread."
The beauty of malvidin, the UCLA team emphasizes, is the limited number
of options for its source. The deeply red molecule gives grapes and wine
their red color and makes their stains difficult to remove.
"In a context that includes elements used for wine production, malvidin
is highly reliable evidence of wine," Areshian said.
Areshian and Ron Pinhasi, an archaeologist at Ireland's University
College Cork and a co-director of the excavation project, captured the
world's imagination in June, when they announced the discovery of a single
5,500-year-old leather moccasin at the Areni-1 site. It is believed to be
the oldest leather shoe ever found.
The precise identity of the wine-swilling shoe-wearers remains a
mystery, although they are believed to be the predecessors of the
Kura-Araxes people, an early Transcaucasian group. Nevertheless,
archaeologists who have been excavating the 7,500-square-foot-plus site
since 2007 think they have an idea of how the wine was used. Because the
press and jugs were discovered among dozens of grave sites, the
archaeologists believe the wine may have played a ceremonial role.
"This wine wasn't used to unwind at the end of the day," Areshian said.
The archaeologists believe wine-making for day-to-day consumption would
have occurred outside the cave, although they have yet to find evidence
for these activities. Still, they believe it is only a matter of time
before someone does.
"The fact that a fully developed wine production facility seems to have
been preserved at this site strongly suggests that there are older, less
well-developed instances of this technology, although these have so far
not been found," Barnard said.
Other foundations that contributed support to the excavation include
the Steinmetz Foundation, the Boochever Family Trust, the Gfoeller
Foundation Inc. and the Chitjian Family Foundation.
BOOK AND WINE TIPS
By Joseph Romero
Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture
Patrick E. McGovern
Forward by Robert G.
Paperback: 400 pages
Princeton University Press;
illustrated edition (January 2007)
For those who are curious about the history and science
behind the above news report, one need only consult Patrick E. McGovern's
Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture. Mr.
McGovern is an exceptional scholar who employs a lively
narrative and the latest techniques in scientific archaeology and
historiography to help the contemporary reader peer into the most remote
corners of early man's agricultural and ritual past. What
we learn there is simply riveting. And while the
book was first published in 2003, it remains a brilliant
and at times prescient work which no civilised amateur of fine wines or
modern wine cultures should be without.
WINE TIP: Red Burgundy
Pommard, Premier Cru, Les Epenots, 2005, Domaine
A great vintage, this excellent, full-bodied red Burgundy is elegant
and refined yet robust. It pairs best with game, depending on the hunt:
chevreuil (venison), gibiers à plumes (game
birds) such as pheasant,
partridge or gibiers d'eau (waterfowl) such as a canette
de barbarie (roasted duck) prepared with small golden
chanterelles (wild mushrooms), or chestnuts. Wild
salmon pairs well for those who prefer fish to game.
As an aside, because the village of Pommard (among others of the
Côte d'Or in Burgundy) dates to an early Roman settlement, some
speculate that the appellation can be traced to the minor Roman
goddess Pomona who ruled over fruit trees and gardens.
Chambolle-Musigny, Premier Cru, Les Combottes,
2007, Domaine Alain Jeanniard
Silky and smooth with ripe, dark fruit flavours, this red
Burgundy may seem a little shy at first, but body and great elegance
are soon to follow.
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