We do not know when humans first began to enjoy fermented wine beverages. Ancient Wine traces the origin of the deliberate making of alcohol back to the early Neolithic, about 7000 years ago. A seasonal or occasional drinking of alcoholic beverages probably goes back much further as many fruits collected in a container would ferment naturally. The current warm cycle of the ice age commenced about 10,000 years ago and this also marked a change, in a region of the Middle East, when humans turned from nomadic hunter gatherers to the first permanent settlements based around the cultivation of cereal crops. It is suggested that the earliest permanent settlements began in Eastern Turkey in the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
This book argues fairly convincingly that this set the scene for skills to develop which allowed for the methodical fermentation of fruits, particularly grapes. With time the transition from harvesting fruit from wild vines to cultivated vines occurred. Domestication of the vine may have first started in the eastern Taurus Mountains of Transcaucasia or the Caucasus Mountains. It was then taken to other areas for cultivation.
The wild grape vine has a wide distribution across the northern edge of the Mediterranean, around the Black Sea and over the Taurus and Caucasus Mountains to the Caspian Sea. It may have been more widespread 10,000 years ago. The wild vine is Vitis Vinifera sub species sylvestris and the domesticated vine is Vitis Vinifera sub species vinifera. The domestic and the wild vine would have continued to interbreed, no doubt contributing to the thousands of grape varieties now recognised.
If you take a keen interest in wine and alcoholic beverages it is natural to reflect upon the history of wine. The references to wine in classical texts, the range of drinking vessels and wall frescos that have been preserved with wine related themes is so common it is apparent that earlier civilisations took a very keen interest in wine and related beverages. There is quite a rich literature on the history of wine with the most recent best seller being The Story of Wine by Hugh Johnson (1989). These books discuss what is known from early beginnings to the present.
Ancient Wine covers the period from about 8000 years ago to 700BC, a vast sweep of time that is poorly covered by all other books. The author shows great knowledge and wine drinkers can be thankful that his attention over the last decade has switched to unravelling the origins of fermented beverages.
As this book makes very clear, the discovery of ethyl alcohol was of immense significance to humans. Resinated wine was being made in the highlands of north western Iran as early as 5400BC. Also this important work strips away any illusions we may have that the early Anatolian and Caucasian societies which embraced wine drinking were basic societies as the descriptions of complex eating and drinking rituals detail a rich and varied life.
On a number of occasions the drinking of wine and other alcoholic beverages came to be the centre around which much of the social activity of the community revolved. The Hittite empire of Anatolia which flourished between 1600 and 1200 B.C. and the complex rituals and festivals of the grand Egyptian civilisations that revolved around wine grown on the Nile delta are examples. The discovery of a wide range of ornate and elaborate drinking cups and serving jugs is strong proof of the central focus of drinking.
The trade in wine was also on a vast scale with immense amounts of wine being moved between regions. We know much about this because of two smart bits of chemical analysis that have been pioneered by the laboratory that the author heads.
Analysis of residue left in storage and transport vessels, mostly amphora of various sizes, shows that many and probably the majority were used to transport and store wine. Similar analysis at archaeological sites confirms numerous 'wineries' and wine storage buildings. The other analysis examines the chemical make up of the clay pots and amphora and how this can be connected to the clay pits from which the clay was taken to make the pottery vessels. In other words the centres of pottery making can be pin pointed and this can be correlated with pottery shards and piles of broken amphora found in ancient rubbish tips that can be hundreds or thousands of kilometres from the production site.
Another aspect is the detail about how wine was made and handled and how it was often the base for a great range of other beverages. The variety of what was in the drinks cabinet comes as a great surprise. Wine was commonly mixed with beer, honey, herbs, fruits and spices and again this is confirmed by chemical analysis. Other beverages were made from grapes fermented with dates and figs and often wine acted as the starting beverage with wheat and barley, honey and raisins and even olive oil, being added later.
A popular beverage from 1600-1480 BC was known as Greek grog and was a combination of resinated wine, barley beer and honey mead and later another version was produced in Anatolia from 1400-1130 BC and contained herbs, spices, wine, milk, honey, oil and water.
The handling and preservation of the new vintage wine, which is fragile without the knowledge of fermentation and oxidation let alone the other myriad problems that can make a wine go sour, was a highly developed skill. Use was made of the same preservatives that helped the healing of wounds and the makers of wine quickly learnt the benefit of adding tree resin to wine to slow oxidation. Resin leaves a chemical trace in the storage container. Resin from the terebinth tree which is related to the pistachio seems to be present in most analysis. This resin is not offensive in taste and smell and handily is exuded from the tree at about the same time as the grapes are picked. Also resins have bactericidal properties, which impede the proliferation of acetic acid bacteria and other micro-organisms.
Many of the clay pots used for wine storage had well fitted stoppers and were laid on their sides so these early winemakers were well advanced in knowing how to preserve wine. Egyptian amphora had clay packed over the top and neck as extra sealing and often a small hole was made in the stopper to allow the escape of gases from secondary fermentation. At other times the amphora were stoppered with reeds and grasses or chaff which permitted the escape of fermentation gases and when this finished a seal would be made with clay.
And the serving and enjoyment of the wine or wine based beverage was at times elaborate. Examples are amphoras that have a small hole drilled just above the sediment line which was used to tap the wine and so leave the wine lees behind. In Egypt by 3100 BC to 2700 BC there had developed an advanced cultivation of grapes and winemaking which involved the recognition of winemakers and even today’s equivalent of sommeliers and managers of the wine at the royal residences. The names of the winemakers and the origin of the grapes were often pressed as a seal into the amphora.
The scale of the wine trade and its often central role in many early civilisations comes as a surprise as does the range and obvious quality of the wine and flavoured beverages. Over thousands of vintages a lot was learnt about keeping the wine drinkable and those in charge of this operation were highly prized.
This book gives hope that in the future many new regions that are favourable for grape growing can again thrive across the vast sweep of Asia Minor along the Himalayas and into China. Another book read recently suggests that Georgia alone has 500 different grape varieties and who knows what riches await us when some of these countries are able to develop a modern wine industry.
Intriguingly the deliberate making of alcoholic beverages from grapes occurred in China about the same time as in the region between the Mediterranean and Caspian Sea and the suggestion has to be made that there may have been a trading of information between the two regions. Also the Vinifera species in China are different to the current cultivated European species and this offers the possibility of exciting new tastes if the Chinese embrace wine over the next few decades.