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Origins of Winemaking Stretch Back 8,000 Years

Archaeologists uncover evidence of grapegrowing and winemaking from 6000 BCE in two ancient villages in Georgia
Photo by: Alison Dunlap
Dr. Patrick McGovern confirmed evidence of winemaking from Stone Age sites near Tbilisi.

Suzanne Mustacich
Posted: November 13, 2017

Archaeologists excavating in the Republic of Georgia have unearthed wine jars dating back to 6000 BCE, the earliest evidence of the domestication of the Eurasian grapevine for the purpose of making wine.

The discovery hinges on pottery fragments from eight ceramic jars found 30 miles south of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, a short distance from the modern border with Armenia and Azerbaijan, during the re-excavations of two ancient Stone Age village sites.

The ceramic fragments were taken for a battery of state-of-the-art chemical analyses at the University of Pennsylvania, where Dr. Patrick McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the Penn Museum, confirmed the presence of tartaric acid, as well as malic, succinic and citric acids, in the residue in the jars. McGovern is a biomolecular archaeologist with a passion for unlocking the mysteries of ancient alcoholic beverages. Tartaric acid is a chemical marker used to identify the presence of grapes and wine.

McGovern noted the absence of tree resin, herbs, cereals and honey, all of which were common in later fermented drinks. "It's very surprising, maybe they hadn't figured it out yet," said McGovern. His findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today.

The discovery pushes back the origins of winemaking. Previously, the oldest known evidence was six jars containing similar residues found at Hajji Firuz Tepe in northwestern Iran. Those jars date back to between 5400 and 5000 BCE.

But McGovern believes the origins of winemaking as we know it could stretch even further. It is possible that modern humans first experienced the joys of fermented grapes in the vicinity of Lebanon, where McGovern thought more work could be done. "Wild grapes would have been growing in Lebanon, Northern Israel, Palestine—that's where you have wild grapes growing today and presumably since the last ice age," said McGovern.

While evidence of fermented drinks in ancient history abound, multidisciplinary evidence—archaeological, chemical, botanical, climatic, linguistic and radiocarbon—points to the Fertile Crescent and South Caucasus as the starting point for our wine culture.

"The horticultural potential of the South Caucasus was bound to lead to the domestication of many new and different species, and innovative 'secondary' products were bound to emerge," said archaeologist Stephen Batiuk from the University of Toronto, who is working on sites in both Turkey and Georgia, including the ones where the fragments were found.

The Fertile Crescent, stretching from Israel and Lebanon through Syria, Turkey and Iran, is where, during Neolithic times, modern humans made the shift from hunting and gathering to farming and settlements, as they learned to domesticate plants and animals, develop crafts like pottery and weaving, and make polished stone tools. They also learned to cultivate grapes, improving their yield and quality. The Eurasian Vitis vinifera, which originates here, is the founder plant for more than 10,000 wine grapes used today, as proven by Swiss botanist José Vouillamoz.

For Georgians, the discovery of the wine jars has been a source of pride, revealing 8,000 years of seemingly continuous winemaking. The sheer number of indigenous grape varieties suggests Vitis Vinifera was cultivated and crossbred here since ancient times.

"Georgia has 525 grape varieties, and wild grapes still grow here," said Tina Kezeli, executive director of the Georgian Wine Association. "This discovery, giving additional proof for Georgia being a place where the winemaking culture started, is certainly very exciting for literally every Georgian—not only wine professionals—as the grape and wine culture is something sacred for Georgians."

The research in Georgia has been undertaken by an international team of scientists from several countries, part of an international project to investigate the roots of its ancient wine culture and funded primarily by the Georgian Wine Association and the Ministry of Agriculture.

At the digs in Georgia, Batiuk unearthed circular, mudbrick buildings and evidence of wheat farming, domesticated cattle, sheep and goats, and obsidian stone and bone tools. Some of the pottery wine jars bore decorations, such as grape clusters or an image evoking a person dancing beneath a grape arbor.

Georgia Wine Museum
Some of the jars feature a grape motif around the rim.

"The grape cluster motif is very suggestive," said McGovern. "And the little nobs I suggest could indicate how a cover was attached."

Innovations would have spread through the region. In Armenia, in a remote cave in the rock above the Arpi river, archaeologists found a small winery dating to 4100 BCE. These Copper Age vintners showed expertise and organization, setting up their operation in the coolness of a cave with a wine press or "stomping platform," leaving the juice to run off into a buried pottery vat, in what is the first evidence of gravity-fed vinification.

According to McGovern, evidence of the same technique has been found in later periods throughout the Near East and Mediterranean, and the scale of the production implies a reliable supply of grapes from domesticated vines.

Pottery has been crucial in piecing together wine's ancient past: The liquids absorbed into the pottery remain for thousands of years. And it was a key invention for early vintners. "Pottery, which was ideal for processing, serving and storing fermented beverages, was invented in this period," said Batiuk.

In China, where people began making pottery as early as 13000 BCE, archaeologists have found jars containing residue of what McGovern calls a "Neolithic grog." The earliest chemically confirmed alcoholic beverage was discovered at Jiahu in the Yellow River Valley, and dates back to between 7000 and 6600 BCE. "It was an extreme fermented beverage made of wild grapes (the earliest attested use), hawthorn, rice, and honey," said McGovern.

What sets the Near East apart from China, in terms of winemaking, is that none of the wild grapes found in China were domesticated.

Even earlier sites are under investigation. McGovern is currently looking at vessels from other spots, including samples from Göbekli Tepe in Eastern Turkey dating back to 9500 BCE. "We're working on them right now," said McGovern. "We've gotten the ancient organic material out of them and now we just have to figure out what it all means."

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