Wine may predate the color blue. This sounds like an absurd claim, but linguists analyzing the Odyssey have come up with a theory that Homer described a “wine dark sea” because the word blue didn’t exist yet, and the ancient Greeks probably still saw things we consider to be blue as simply shades of other existing colors. But they had a word for wine. Which forces one to wonder, just how old is wine? When did we discover it?
When wine was first made is a tricky question because even animals have a knack for letting things ferment in order to get a quick buzz. Early humans had probably been fermenting wild grapes in one form or another for as long as they have known about grapes. Most likely the Neolithic people in Turkey and Central Asia had figured out how to let wild grapes ferment in bowls from between 8500 to 4000 BC.
Archaeologists have been able to locate the earliest known winery however. In 2007, a team of Irish and Armenian archaeologists in the Vayots Dyor province of Armenia were exploring the Areni-1 cave complex when they found pottery sherds, storage jars, fermentation vats, and a wine press. Botanical analysis and radiocarbon testing date the winery to around 4100 BC or the Late Chalcolithic period. Analysis of the grape seed and vine remains found on site show that they were Vitis Vinifera, a varietal still in use in wine production to this day.
Wine spread to Greece by 4500 BC. The Ancient Greeks believed that the God Dionysus discovered winemaking on the slopes of Mount Nysa and taught it to the peoples of Anatolia (modern day Turkey). In reality, the seafaring Phoenician people of modern day Lebanon, spread grape cultivation and wine production throughout the Mediterranean world including Greece and Egypt. The Greeks continued the spread of wine cultivation by bringing Vitus Vinifera vines to their colonies in Sicily and Southern France and Spain. Modern Greek wines continue to be made with grapes exclusive to Greece that are holdovers from these first ancient varietals. One of the most popular wines in Greece even continues to use Retsina, an ancient practice of lining jugs with pine sap to prevent spoilage and impart flavor to the wine.
Evidence of grape fermentation in the Far East actually dates back to 7000 BC. Patrick McGovern, Professor of Anthropology at Penn traces the earliest known wild grape fermentation and in fact the earliest chemically confirmed alcoholic beverage in the world to the site of Jiahu in the Henan province of China. Because of the fact that the beverage appears to have contained wild mountain grapes, honey, and barley, it can technically count an ancestor to wine, beer, or mead. In spite of this early evidence of wine, we don’t typically think of China when we think wine because it fell out of favor during the Han Dynasty as fermented rice and millet drinks rose in popularity.
We often talk about terroir, or sense of place when we talk wine because you can taste it. There’s nothing quite like tasting slight hints of the slate valleys of Mosel in a really good Riesling, or notes of the local eucalyptus in a great Australian Shiraz. We tend to not think about the sense of culture and history that accompanies the wine in our glass but it had no less of an effect on the final product. The wine you sip is part of a tradition that has been spreading and evolving for thousands of years. From ancient to modern times there’s nothing quite like a good wine.