The Ancient History of Wine

Can you imagine a world without wine? If you’re anything like us, the very thought of such a thing is enough to make you weep with despair. Perhaps a better question would be ‘has there ever been a world without wine?’ – and just how far back does winemaking go?

We all know that wine has truly ancient origins, but the actual sheer length of time during which mankind has been fermenting grapes is only just starting to come to light. There’s plenty of written evidence out there which suggests that the history of wine is a long and fascinating one; it’s mentioned plenty of times in the Old Testament, it pops up in Greek and Persian myths which pre-date the Bible, and it even plays a major role in the Rig Veda – an ancient Indian text which certain historians reckons was first dictated 5,000 years ago.

If that seems old, then prepare to be stunned and amazed. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that winemaking predates even the oldest texts, and was around long before the rise of any of the great civilisations most of us are familiar with. In fact, the evidence suggests that winemaking has been around for almost as long as human cultures have been on the earth. A world without wine? As far as people go, such a thing has simply never existed.

Astonishingly Ancient Evidence

For the longest time, it was supposed that winemaking and grape cultivation was something which was first practised sometime around 2000 BC, and probably first arose with one of the great early merchant cultures, like the Phoenicians or Sumerians. The latest archaeological findings, however, have blown such theories clean out of the water, and have provided us with clear evidence of a far older set of practices.

It’s now pretty definitively believed that winemaking (in the sense of clear, purposeful fermentation and vinification of grapes, rather than a happy accident) first took place in and around the Zagros and Caucasus Mountains (those which bridge the Black and Caspian Seas), sometime around 8,000 BC. That’s over 10,000 years of wine! As such, if we were to point on the map to the genuine spiritual home of wine, we wouldn’t be pointing to modern France, Italy, or Spain… but rather Georgia (whose people have long claimed to be originators of wine), Turkey, Iran and Armenia.

Historians and wine experts are currently claiming that the stone age Shulaveri-Shomu people – a neolithic culture who settled in the Caucasus mountains – would have been the first to set out to purposeful make their own wines. They would have been proficient with obsidian tools, were most likely cattle herders, and were the first to experiment with cultivating grapevines as a source of food and rudimentary wines. How do we know this? Excavations have uncovered the following, which all point towards an early wine-drinking culture:

● Lots of clay vessels containing traces of tartaric acid, which is a naturally occurring chemical found in fermented grapes.

● Clay vessels sealed with pine resin – the same material used in Greek retsina wines.

● The remains of what appears to be an actual winery, complete with tools for pressing grapes.

This supposed winery – incredibly – was found in an Armenian village which still makes wine to this day, using the indigenous and truly ancient Areni grapes.

These archaeological findings aren’t quite the same as digging up a dusty bottle of wine, labelled and dated with mysterious hieroglyphs… but they do suggest something many historians have long since suspected: that winemaking developed alongside the development of the earliest agricultural practices, and was a key part of the first homo sapien settlements, right back at the dawn of civilisation. That, my friends, is awe-inspiring stuff.

Early Civilisations and Wine

While all the evidence points to Georgia, Iran, and Armenia as the origins of winemaking as we know it, it clearly wasn’t long before the practise caught on, and the trend began to spread outwards from the cradle of viticulture. By 4000 BC, the Mediterranean was buzzing with life and new civilisations, and trade routes were being established by the ancient Greeks, the Phoenicians, and lots of other upstart cultures.

We know from early records that wine was a precious commodity to each of these cultures, and as they moved from place to place, and settled and conquered various islands and new lands, they brought their vines with them and experimented with their capabilities. Indeed, it was the Phoenicians who first brought grapevines to Italy, and the Greeks revered wine as a living god in the form of Dionysus – so it’s pretty clear that this wonderful drink clearly made a significant impact on their developing society!
Wines of the Pharaohs

Next down the line of history comes the Egyptians. Innovative, creative, industrious and powerful, the Egyptian culture and early dynasties took to wine in a big way. We know from various archaeological finds that from 3000 BC, Pharaohs and other significant figures of Egyptian culture were being buried with their favourite wines, and that wine was a major trading tool and imported good, and clearly highly popular in and around the Nile Delta.

The ancient Egyptians were great when it came to making records, and there are hundreds of existing reports of trade deals which were being established with neighbouring nations. We know, for example, that the most popular wines in Egypt were imported in vast quantities all the way from Palestine, and that the Pharaoh’s special reserves came into Giza from Lebanon (again, another major wine-producing country to this day). The best thing about the Egyptians? They were the first to label their wines… and just like today, they labeled their vessels with the vintage, the name of the appellation it came from, and the name of the winery and vintner. One famous label reads: “Wine of the most exalted House of Aton, perched high upon the Western Nile”, which isn’t a million miles from what you might read on a trendy McLaren Vale label from 2018!

What Have the Romans Done For Us?

Of course, as the Egyptian empire began to fall, another was climbing with an ambition and power of the like the world had never seen before. The Romans were ruthless yet logical, inventive yet eccentric, and were mastering the kinds of technologies which would change the planet forever. Their Empire encircled the known world – it stretched from Central Asia to the borders of Scotland, and from the Baltic Sea to North Africa – and the Romans who settled these various countries planted grapes pretty much everywhere they could. Indeed, almost all of the Old World wine countries we know and love today owe their classic grape varietals to these original pioneers.

Wine was a huge part of Roman life. Safer than water, and believed to possess powerful properties ideal for strengthening armies, and for keeping the populous happy. Head to the preserved city of Pompeii, and you’ll find every home featured several big wine jars which are now preserved in the volcanic ash of Mount Vesuvius. Pliny – the great Roman chronicler – wrote extensively about wine, and we know from him that Roman vintners experimented with extended aging of red wines, and using amphorae to bring out different characteristics of their grapes. They also experimented with infusing their wines with spices and honey, and bringing together the first purposeful blends of grapes gathered from across their empire.

As we’ve seen, wine has been present for as long as human beings have been working with the land in which they’ve settled. Mighty civilisations have risen and fallen, and yet our vino has remained. Let’s raise a glass to this truly ancient drink, and give thanks to those earliest of grape growers. The world really wouldn’t be the same without them.

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