January 11th, 2011
A team of archaeologists from UCLA excavating the cave in Armenia where the earliest known leather shoe was found have discovered the world’s oldest known winery. The facility includes a wine press for stomping grapes, fermentation vats, storage jars, drinking vessels and the organic remains of wine production and ingestion: vines, skins, seeds and wine-soaked pottery shards.
Preserved by a roof cave-in and a top layer of sheep dung that sealed the cave so effectively that organic materials like leather and grape vines survived in excellent condition, the residue on the pottery shards was radiocarbon dated to between 4100 and 4000 B.C., making this winery at least 1,000 years older than any previously known wine-making apparatus. Chemical analysis on the stained shards confirmed the present of malvidin, the pigment that makes red wine red and stains your carpet.
This is the earliest, most reliable evidence of wine production,” said archaeologist Gregory Areshian of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
“For the first time, we have a complete archaeological picture of wine production dating back 6,100 years,” he said.
The prehistoric winemaking equipment was first detected in 2007, when excavations co-directed by Areshian and Armenian archaeologist Boris Gasparyan began 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 wine the old-fashioned way, using their feet, Areshian said.
The grape juice sluiced from the stomping basin into the vat where it was left to ferment. Once fermented, wine was stored in jars. Since the cave complex was a burial ground, it’s likely the wine was used for ceremonial purposes rather than quaffed in public house camaraderie.
The presence of a wine-making operation of this scale also suggests grape cultivation. The vat would have held 14 to 15 gallons and wild grapes don’t produce near enough fruit to necessitate such large vessels. According to biomolecular archaeologist and ancient wine expert Patrick E. McGovern, DNA studies of cultivated grapes indicate an Armenian/Georgian origin, so finding an early winery in the mountains of Armenia fits with the biological evidence.
We can’t know what it tasted like, of course, but McGovern notes that the grapes used in the Areni cave winemaking installation might have been similar in flavor to the ancestors of the Pinot Noir grape. They might have added tree resin for preservation purposes, though, and resin has a very noticeable taste, so the Areni wine might have tasted more like today’s Greek retsina than a nice, dry Pinot Noir.