Oldest Winery Found in Armenia

Essentially this is supportiveevidence for the antiquity of complex process of domesticated wine making.  Agriculture itself began itself around tenthousand years ago and was established at the village level before the BronzeAge economy emerged.  Thus wine making likelyemerged just as early as we are then addressing any convenient fruit to producealcohol in a jug.

As the metal trade evolved, the superiorityof the grape would quickly dominate the trade itself.  Today we forget that in living memory,farmers gathered surplus fruit in season to produce their own alcoholic brewfor their own private consumption and little of this was ever fit forsate.  I suspect that that tradition wasin place with the firsts grain growing and beer making.

This cave is something else.  It is a local endeavor that produces a greatquantity of plausibly quite good wine that could well have been used as anexport product for the community.  We canbe sure it was.

Earliest Known Winery Found in Armenian Cave

Barefoot winemakers likely worked in cave where oldest leather shoe wasfound.

An apparent wine press (in front of sign) and fermentation vat (right)emerge during a dig in Armenia.

Photograph courtesy Gregory Areshian
James Owen for NationalGeographic News
Published January 10, 2011

As if making the oldestknown leather shoe wasn't enough, a prehistoric people in what'snow Armenia also built theworld's oldest known winery, a new study says.

Undertaken at a burial site, their winemaking may have been dedicatedto the dead—and it likely required the removal of any fancy footwear.

Near the village of Areni, in the same cave where a stunninglypreserved, 5,500-year-old leather moccasin was recently found, archaeologistshave unearthed a wine press for stomping grapes, fermentation and storagevessels, drinking cups, and withered grape vines, skins, and seeds, the study says.

"This is the earliest, most reliable evidence of wineproduction," said archaeologist GregoryAreshian of the University ofCalifornia, Los Angeles (UCLA).

"For the first time, we have a complete archaeological picture ofwine production dating back 6,100 years," he said. (Related: "FirstWine? Archaeologist Traces Drink to Stone Age.")

The prehistoric winemaking equipment was first detected in 2007, whenexcavations co-directed by Areshian and Armenian archaeologist Boris Gasparyanbegan at the Areni-1 cave complex.

In September 2010 archaeologists completed excavations of a large, 2-foot-deep(60-centimeter-deep) vat buried next to a shallow, 3.5-foot-long (1-meter-long)basin made of hard-packed clay with elevated edges.

The installation suggests the Copper Age vintners pressed their winethe old-fashioned way, using their feet, Areshian said.

Juice from the trampled grapes drained into the vat, where it was leftto ferment, he explained.

The wine was then stored in jars—the cool, dry conditions of the cavewould have made a perfect wine cellar, according to Areshian, who co-authored thenew study, published Tuesday in the Journalof Archaeological Science.

Wine Traces

To test whether the vat and jars in the Armenian cave had held wine,the team chemically analyzed pottery shards—which had been radiocarbon-dated tobetween 4100 B.C. and 4000 B.C.—for telltale residues.

The chemical tests revealed traces of malvidin, the plant pigmentlargely responsible for red wine's color.

"Malvidin is the best chemical indicator of the presence of winewe know of so far," Areshian said.

Ancient-wine expert Patrick E.McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the Universityof Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, agrees theevidence argues convincingly for a winemaking facility.

One thing that would make the claim a bit stronger, though, saidMcGovern, who wasn't involved in the study, is the presence of tartaric acid,another chemical indicator of grapes. Malvidin, he said, might have come fromother local fruits, such as pomegranates.

Combined with the malvidin and radiocarbon evidence, traces of tartaricacid "would then substantiate that the facility is the earliest yetfound," he said.

"Later, we know that small treading vats for stomping out thegrapes and running the juice into underground jars are used all over the NearEast and throughout the Mediterranean," he added.

Winery Discovery Backed Up by DNA?

McGovern called the discovery "important and unique, because itindicates large-scale wine production, which would imply, I think, that thegrape had already been domesticated."

As domesticated vines yield much more fruit than wild varieties, largerfacilities would have been needed to process the grapes.

McGovern has uncovered chemical and archaeological evidence of wine,but not of a winery, in northern Iran dating back some 7,000years—around a thousand years earlier than the new find.

But the apparent discovery that winemaking using domesticatedgrapevines emerged in what's now Armenia appears to dovetail withprevious DNA studies of cultivated grape varieties, McGovern said. Thosestudies had pointed to the mountains of Armenia, Georgia, andneighboring countries as the birthplace of viticulture.

McGovern—whose book Uncorking the Past: TheQuest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages traces the originsof wine—said the Areni grape perhaps produced a taste similar to that ofancient Georgian varieties that appear to be ancestors of the Pinot Noir grape,which results in a dry red.

To preserve the wine, however, tree resin would probably have beenadded, he speculated, so the end result may actually have been more like aGreek retsina, which is still made with tree resin.

In studying ancient alcohol, he added, "our chemical analyses haveshown tree resin in many wine samples."

Ancient Drinking Rituals

While the identities of the ancient, moccasin-clad wine quaffers remaina mystery, their drinking culture likely involved ceremonies in honor of thedead, UCLA's Areshian believes.

"Twenty burials have been identified around the wine-pressinginstallation. There was a cemetery, and the wine production in the cave wasrelated to this ritualistic aspect," Areshian speculated.

Significantly, drinking cups have been found inside and around thegraves.

McGovern, the ancient-wine expert, said later examples of ancientalcohol-related funerary rituals have been found throughout the world.

In ancient Egypt,for example, "you have illustrations inside the tombs showing how manyjars of beer and wine from the Nile Delta areto be provided to the dead," McGovern said. (Also see "ScorpionKing's Wines—Egypt's Oldest—Spiked With Meds.")
"I guess a cave is secluded, so it's good for a cemetery, but it'salso good for making wine," he added. "And then you have the wineright there, so you can keep the ancestors happy."

Future work planned at Areni will further investigate links between theburials and winemaking, study leader Areshian said.

Winemaking as Revolution

The discovery is important, the study team says, because winemaking isseen as a significant social and technological innovation among prehistoricsocieties.

Vine growing, for instance, heralded the emergence of new,sophisticated forms of agriculture, Areshian said.

"They had to learn and understand the cycles of growth of theplant," he said. "They had to understand how much water was needed,how to prevent fungi from damaging the harvest, and how to deal with flies thatlive on the grapes.

"The site gives us a new insight into the earliest phase ofhorticulture—how they grew the first orchards and vineyards," he added.

University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Naomi Miller commented that"from a nutritional and culinary perspective, wine expands the food supplyby harnessing the otherwise sour and unpalatable wild grape.

"From a social perspective, for good and ill," Miller said,"alcoholic beverages change the way we interact with each other in society."

The ancient-winery study was led by UCLA's Hans Barnard and partiallyfundedby the National Geographic Society's Committeefor Research and Exploration. (The Society owns National Geographic News.)

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