The Origins and History of Wine Making

The Origins and History of Wine Making

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Wine is an alcoholic beverage made from grapes, and depending on your definition of "made from grapes" there are at least two independent inventions of it. The oldest known possible evidence for the use of grapes as part of a wine recipe with fermented rice and honey comes from China, about 9,000 years ago. Two thousand years later, the seeds of what became the European wine-making tradition began in western Asia.

Archaeological Evidence

Archaeological evidence of wine-making is a little difficult to come by because the presence of grape seeds, fruit skins, stems, and/or stalks at an archaeological site does not necessarily imply the production of wine. The two main methods of identifying winemaking accepted by scholars are the presence of domesticated stocks and evidence of grape processing.

The main mutation incurred during the domestication process of grapes was the advent of hermaphroditic flowers, meaning that domesticated forms of grapes are capable of self-pollination. Thus, vintners can pick traits they like and, as long as the vines are kept on the same hillside, they need not worry about cross-pollination changing next year's grapes.

The discovery of parts of the plant outside its native territory is also accepted evidence of domestication. The wild ancestor of the European wild grape (Vitis vinifera sylvestris) is native to western Eurasia between the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas; thus, the presence of V. vinifera outside of its normal range is also considered evidence of domestication.

Chinese Wines

The real story of wine from grapes begins in China. Residues on pottery shards radiocarbon dated to around 7000-6600 BCE from the Chinese early Neolithic site of Jiahu have been recognized as coming from a fermented beverage made of a mixture of rice, honey, and fruit.

The presence of fruit was identified by the tartaric acid/tartrate remnants at the bottom of a jar. (These are familiar to anyone who drinks wine from corked bottles today.) Researchers could not narrow down the species of the tartrate between grape, hawthorn, or longyan or cornelian cherry, or a combination of two or more of those ingredients. Grape seeds and hawthorn seeds have both been found at Jiahu. Textual evidence for the use of grapes-although not specifically grape wine-date to the Zhou Dynasty circa 1046-221 BCE.

If grapes were used in wine recipes, they were from a wild grape species native to China, not imported from western Asia. There are between 40 and 50 different wild grape species in China. The European grape was introduced into China in the second century BCE, along with other Silk Road imports.

Western Asia Wines

The earliest firm evidence for wine-making to date in western Asia is from the Neolithic period site called Hajji Firuz, Iran (dated to 5400-5000 BCE), where a deposit of sediment preserved at the bottom of an amphora was proven to be a mix of tannin and tartrate crystals. The site deposits included five more jars similar to the one with the tannin/tartrate sediment, each with a capacity of about nine liters of liquid.

Sites outside of the normal range for grapes with early evidence of grapes and grape processing in western Asia include Lake Zeriber, Iran, where grape pollen was found in a soil core just before around 4300 cal BCE. Charred fruit skin fragments were found at Kurban Höyük in southeastern Turkey by the late sixth through the early fifth millennia BCE.

Wine importation from western Asia has been identified in the earliest days of dynastic Egypt. A tomb belonging to the Scorpion King (dated about 3150 BCE) contained 700 jars believed to have been made and filled with wine in the Levant and shipped to Egypt.

European Wine Making

In Europe, wild grape (Vitis vinifera) pips have been found in fairly ancient contexts, such as Franchthi Cave, Greece (12,000 years ago), and Balma de l'Abeurador, France (about 10,000 years ago). But the evidence for domesticated grapes is later than that of East Asia, although similar to that of the western Asia grapes.

Excavations at a site in Greece called Dikili Tash have revealed grape pips and empty skins, direct-dated to between 4400-4000 BCE, the earliest example to date in the Aegean. A clay cup containing both grape juice and grape pressings is thought to represent evidence for fermentation at Dikili Tash. Grapevines and wood have also been found there.

A wine production installation dated to circa 4000 cal BCE has been identified at the site of Areni-1 cave complex in Armenia, consisting of a platform for crushing grapes, a method of moving the crushed liquid into storage jars, and, potentially, evidence of the fermentation of red wine.

By the Roman period, and likely spread by Roman expansion, viticulture reached most of the Mediterranean area and western Europe, and wine became a highly valued economic and cultural commodity. By the end of the first century BCE, it had become a major speculative and commercial product.

Wine Yeasts

Wines are fermented with yeast, and until the mid-20th century, the process relied on naturally-occurring yeasts. Those fermentations often had inconsistent results and, because they took a long time to work, were vulnerable to spoilage.

One of the most significant advances in winemaking was the introduction of pure starter strains of Mediterranean Saccharomyces cerevisiae (commonly called brewer's yeast) in the 1950s and 1960s. Since that time, commercial wine fermentations have included these S. cerevisiae strains, and there are now hundreds of reliable commercial wine yeast starter cultures around the world, enabling consistent wine production quality.

DNA sequencing has enabled researchers to trace the spread of S. cerevisiae in commercial wines for the past 50 years, comparing and contrasting different geographical regions, and according to researchers, providing the possibility for improved wines in the future.


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