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11.29.2005

Unlocking The Secrets of The First Winemakers

I would post this story just for the accompanying picture of the caveman stomping wines in a bearskin, but as a bonus, it's actually a piece of interesting news about the earliest days of winemaking by humans. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have been studying early winemaking for some time, and have reached the conclusion based on some primitive clay jugs. These large vessels, capable of holding around 2.5 gallons were found buried in the Northern Zagros Mountains of Iran, and contained residues which seem to be wine.

The interesting thing is that these jugs are about 6000 years old, and were created by a culture that was fairly primitive even by the standards of the time (about 1000 miles away, the Egyptians were busy building the first pyramids). By any measure, even for the Egyptians, who were just starting to figure out wine at this point as well, that's pretty early and may be a good indication of how wine was first made in primitive cultures.

Speculation abounds about how humans first figured out that fermenting berries was a good idea, but one of the popular theories which is proffered in the article suggests that perhaps we observed birds eating naturally fermented berries and acting loopy, so we gave it a try.

Regardless, its always interesting to me to speculate how we started making this magical liquid which, as the article also points out, some people have said may be "the primary agent for the development of Western civilization." Now THERE'S an idea. Check out the full article.

Comments (7)

Terry Hughes wrote:
11.29.05 at 7:09 PM

Alder, McGovern's book, Ancient Wine, is a pretty good if repetitive investigation into the earliest findings of wine-making and wine-centered culture. He makes a pretty good case for the centrality of wine as a "primary agent" of western culture, based not only on its use as a sacramental drink, but its very early commercialization too. Jonathan Nossiter, eat your heart out.

By the way, Egypt was too hot to grow much decent wine and it was mostly imported from Syria. The upper classes drank wine. The common folk drank beer.

Nothing ever really changes, does it.

Iris wrote:
11.30.05 at 7:23 AM

That reminds me of our first year of winemaking. Very small harvest - partly already because of the wild boars (like in the ancient times?) - and too small a quantity to press on our old vertical press.

The solution came to me, when I went through one of the books about ancient wine making in my library: there was a picture from an Egyptian tomb, showing people press wine by turning a kind of blanket in two different directions - like we did before the fully automatic washing machines.

So I took a clean pillow, we put the grapes inside and after some effort on both sides, we had our first juice! Thanks to the Egyptians.

Ian Scott wrote:
11.30.05 at 12:19 PM

Hey Iris, that's an interesting comment. I started making my own wines from fruit such as blueberries and blackcurrants. I crushed the berries and fermented the juice (with water and sugar added) with the crushed berries still in the fermentation vessel.

When it came time to rack, I had a problem - the bits and pieces clogged up my racking hose.

So I used cheesecloth. Pouring the mass into another pail lined with cheesecloth... and then doing the same thing as you did to "press" the juice out.

Great workout for the forearm muscles!!

GregP wrote:
11.30.05 at 10:34 PM

Hmmm....

Interesting article. Call me crazy, but 6000 years ago was already a Bronze Age, not Stone as mentioned in the article? People developed writing, cuniform, at about the 6000 years ago mark, this is Stone Age, still? Stated by a "known" scientist? Wow!

Birds and animals eat grapes for their SUGAR content, not alcohol. Alcohol is a product of FERMENTATION, does fermentation happen on a vine? Probably very, very late in the season, but by then most fruit simply rots away. Does anyone eat rotten fruit? Neither do birds and animals, at least not by choice.

Its nice to speculate, but that is all this is, speculation and from where I sit, a really amateurish one. I'd be more inclined to think that it was someone leaving grapes in a dish out in the sun with wild yeast doing its job before the person returned (and tasted the result). I have yet to see a bird, deer or bear fall off in drunken stupor after eating grapes, come to think of it, I haven't seen a human do that, either.

Winemaking supposedly spread from Caucasus Mountain region covering what is now Armenia/Iran region, to Egypt. But wait, there is more! Latest discoveries in China lay claim to the earliest winemaking, beating Middle East by only 3000 years, I won't be surprised to find out that Silk Road made wine available to Middle East well before it was established in the region and then exported further West (Aegea).

Anyway...

Alder wrote:
12.01.05 at 8:02 AM

Craig,

Yeah. Stone age is not the same thing as Neolithic, though people often confuse them. The journalist correctly used the term Neolithic, but incorrectly used the term Stone Age.

Also it's worth noting that these "ages" were not uniform blankets of development around the world. While by 4000 BC the Egyptians were definitely an advanced civilization, there were plenty more that were far far less developed at that point.

You're right about Chinese. Scientists recently discovered traces of chinese wine that they date at around 6000 BC, a full 2000 years earlier than this find. From what I can see the point of the research discovery is not that this is the earliest evidence of winemaking, but it is associated with a more primitive culture at the time.

Charlene wrote:
12.24.05 at 11:39 PM

Actually, animals eat rotten fruit all the time. It's the main winter diet of most birds.

Dogs will happily eat rotten crabapples or other fruit.

Susan wrote:
02.09.09 at 2:54 PM

We are raspberry growers and I have personally eaten fermented berries that are in special dry weather conditions with cool days and nights but no frost in the autumn. Presumably there are natural yeasts on the blossom when the berry is formed. The alcohol level is quit low, however; the soluble solids in a ripe raspberry is usually about 9 Brix.

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