Georgia: Inventor of Wine

Less than 30km south of Tbilisi, a cluster of small, round mud houses stand on top of an emerald-green valley. The settlement is called Gadachrili Gora and, in a report published this week, its people were found to be the makers of the oldest wine in history. The stone age farmers who occupied this place 8000 years ago lived in a period when humans were still dependent on stone tools.

Georgians have always claimed to be the inventors of wine and this evidence is now the earliest example of wine making in the world. It pre-dates 7000-year-old specimens in north-western Iran and 6000-year-old evidence found in Armenia.

The discovery was published in the journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ (PNAS). The team was composed of a group of international archaeologists led by Patrick McGovern, an archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania.

While excavating the small, circular houses at the site, the group found fragments of large pots called qvevri (that are still used by Georgian winemakers today) embedded in the floors of the homes. More specimens were unearthed in another small village called Shulaveri Gora, roughly a kilometer away.

The samples were later analyzed and found to contain tartaric acid, a chemical compound that proves these broken pieces of pottery had wine residue present on them. There was some debate over whether the residue was actually wine, or a non-alcoholic grape juice. But Andrew Waterhouse, a wine chemist at the University of California, said that succinic acid was also found, indicating that fermentation had taken place. This, combined with decorations outside of the jars of grapevines and people dancing, confirmed the it was.

The discoveries were carbon-dated to place the samples between 5,800 and 6,000 B.C., making the ancient inhabitants of the village the oldest known makers of wine.

No evidence of grapes being grown could be found on the site, for this reason the team believe that the wine was made in the nearby hills close to where the grapes grew. “They were pressing it in cooler environments, fermenting it and then pouring it into smaller jugs and transporting it to the villages when it was ready to drink,” says University of Toronto archaeologist Stephen Batiuk, who co-directed the expedition alongside archaeologist Mindia Jalabdze of the Georgian National Museum.

In later periods, there is evidence of tree resin being used to both cover up foul-tasting wine and to prevent it from expiring; much like how modern winemakers use sulfites. No suggestions of this were found at the site, meaning these wines were most likely made and consumed before they had the time to turn sour. “They don’t seem to have put tree resin with it,” McGovern says. “Maybe they hadn’t yet discovered that tree resins were helpful.”

This discovery deepens our understanding of the Neolithic period, which began around 10,000 B.C. This was a pivotal time in human history because it was when our ancestors began to farm, settle down, domesticate crops animals and lead more complex lives. “Wine fermentation isn’t a survival necessity. It shows that human beings back then were about more than utilitarian activity,” says Stanford University archaeologist Patrick Hunt. “There’s far greater sophistication even in the transitional Neolithic than we had any clue about.”

McGovern said that despite these groundbreaking discoveries, the team still hasn’t even reached the deepest, oldest layers of the site. “We might be able to push it back even further,” he says. “We’re filling out the story of wine, this liquid that’s so pivotal to so many cultures—to western civilization, really.”

He also talked about one moment in the project that stuck with him. He had studied one of the jars in great depth and then “come home at night, and I have my glass of wine in one hand, and I'm looking out at this public building, and there's essentially the same scene right across the street from me." What he saw was the same motif that was found on the ancient qvevri: people dancing under the vines, bridging an eight thousand millennia gap between us and our ancestors.

By Tom Day

16 November 2017 19:15