Ancient Wine Or How Old is Winemaking Really?
This blog post is for wine geeks interested in the global origins and history of wine making. If this topic piques your interest, read on! I have long been a proud nerd and love diving into the nitty-gritty of the wine world to have plenty of know-how to share with my customers.
If wine history isn’t for you, please see my previous posts starting in Jan 2022 for more modern day and locally relevant Willamette Valley wine education topics you may have missed: Triangle Wine Country Wine Blog Page
I am pleased to report that the origin of this blog post lies in a book my son gave me for Christmas: Ancient Wine by Patrick McGovern. Published in 2003, if you don’t recognize the author, you will recognize the writer of the foreword: Robert Mondavi who inspired McGovern by sponsoring a conference in 1991 called “The Origins and History of Ancient Wine”. Robert Mondavi Winery, established in 1966, is one of the original Napa Valley wine destinations and helped put California on the International wine map in the 1970’s and remains one of Napa Valley’s premier wineries.
When It All Started
Fast forward to my studies for the Certified Specialist of Wine program in 2021. A chapter of the CSW study guide described the theories and evidence for grape vine domestication around the world from Asia across the Middle East to Europe. Through the dating of artifacts scholars indicate the timing to be 6000 to 8000 years ago. Was there one origin, where people who made the first wines migrated to other areas and brought grapes with them (or domesticated local grapes), or several concurrent origins across continents?
Many archeologists point to the Neolithic period 8500-4000 BC where horticulture (planting and tending vines vs gathering from wild vines), pottery production (to store juice to allow for fermentation) and food processing techniques came together to result in a palatable, consistent beverage.
A leading hypothesis is the Noah Hypothesis, where on Mount Ararat in Turkey, the Bible informs us Noah’s Ark came to rest after the floods receded and the first crop planted were grape vines. The scientific findings point to early domesticated Eurasian grapevines (vitis vinifera-still the gold standard species for wine) in the area of Mount Ararat in the same millenia that the ark was supposed to have landed.
Coincidence? You decide.
Wine history scholars do agree that the region around the Caucasus and Zagros Mountains between modern day Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia (Transcaucasia) have been inhabited since the Neolithic era. The temperate climate was conducive to early man and grapes: hilly terrain good for building villages with protection from weather and intruders, fertile soil due to proximity to rivers (Tigris & Euphrates among others) not to mention fresh water access. The area was ripe for settling and creating an agrarian society. The diverse ecology (over 6000 plant species including grapes, hazelnuts, pomegranates, pears, walnuts grow here) in the region was a draw for our ancestors to put down roots and start farming.
Why grapes and not some other fruit? Though any grain or fruit can be fermented to create an alcoholic beverage, only grapes have the diversity via hybridization and genetic mutation to create juice with such varied flavor and aroma profiles, rewarding the vigneron (wine grape farmer) with thousands of grape choices. Add the influence of soil, climate, elevation, latitude not to mention the winemaker’s decisions, and the resulting wines can vary wildly from year to year and continue to impress us wine lovers with new wines to enjoy every harvest!
Georgia, Birthplace of Wine?
The modern day Republic of Georgia is receiving well deserved international attention for its winemaking history. The New York Times listed Kakheti Georgia as #23 of their recent list of 52 places to go in 2023! Current wine trends can link their history to Georgia’s 8000 year old traditions including orange wine and fermenting in clay amphorae, in addition to re-introducing ancient grape varieties such as Saperavi and Rkatsiteli.
The Oregon Connection
Both the above trends are well represented in Oregon: Orange wine is the process of leaving white grapes on their skins for an extended period (days up to a month or more) to extract additional flavor and color (hence the orange name-no relation to the fruit!). Anne Amie Vineyards makes a Rose of Pinot Gris and Teutonic Wine Company makes an extended skin contact Gewurztraminer, both considered orange wines.
Beckham Estates owner Andrew Beckham, a ceramicist before a winemaker, creates terra cotta urns for wine storage in the old world amphora style and ships them to winemakers, breweries and distilleries around the world. This is in addition to his vineyards and winemaking business on Parrett Mountain in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.
Grape-growing and winemaking are traditions leading back millenia. We can thank our ancestors in Europe and Asia for the wine we enjoy today, and for creating techniques still in use. Ruminate on these facts when you enjoy your next glass of wine with friends or family and marvel at the ingenuity and innovation of our ancestors. Want to learn more about wine traditions and history of wine grapes? Read Ancient Wine or take a wine tour and seek out wineries who continue to innovate with old world grapes and winemaking traditions, or both!
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