Benjamin Mitrofan-Norris on March 29, 2017 1 Comment There are many reasons to love wine. When we sip from a glass, inhale the aroma and feel the myriad flavors dancing on our tongue, we often find ourselves transported to another place. Drinking a good Tuscan wine is like lazing in the mid-afternoon Italian sunshine, Bordeaux takes us into a hazy world of scintillating conversation and rustic, French joie de vivre, Californian wines are full of the spirit of the breezy Pacific coastline. For those of us interested in wine, we can explore the traditions and methods used by master winemakers, and think about the subtle differences between grape varietals and winemaking technique. However, while the relatively modern history of wine – from the twentieth century onwards – is the subject of countless books and articles, there is relatively little public knowledge of the wine’s ancient origins. This is understandable in many ways; wine as we know it today is a relatively modern drink. Industrialization brought a new age to the world of wine, just as it did to everything else on earth, and the bottles we pick up in our local wine stores, no matter how much they may go on about their natural and organic qualities, bear little resemblance to their ancestral counterparts. So, where does wine come from, and what was it like in those times? Let’s look at a few key moments in history, and find out. Into the Mists of Time That wine has an ancient history is pretty well understood, but just how far back can we go? There is mention of wine in the Book of Genesis, the ancient Greeks were recording texts on the subject it from roughly a similar time. The Rig Veda, the ancient literature of India, similarly speaks of wine and it is a common thread throughout most of the world’s religious texts, but the oldest archaeological discoveries connected with wine stretch back beyond any writings on the planet. Most historians and archaeologists now generally believe that we can trace the history of wine way, way back in history, to the Middle East. In what is now Iran, people were seemingly fermenting grape juice in roughly 5,400 BC. Several clay jars have been unearthed in the Iranian hillsides dating back to the late neolithic era, which contain traces of chemicals such as tartaric acid – a naturally occurring acid in fermented fruits – along with pine resin, which is one of those almost indestructible materials which more or less lasts forever. This may not be the same as digging up a bottle of wine, complete with a label bearing a vintage, but it does suggest that wine production is a truly ancient art, which takes us back to the very origins of civilization. It is particularly interesting that pine resin was found, as this practice of sealing jars with scented resin (and thus flavoring the wine) was also common in the Roman era… and is still in practice today in modern Greece, where you’ll find Retsina (resinated wine) in any traditional taverna. The Greek Connection So, wine seems to have been first drunk from vessels around 7,000 years ago in Iran. Fast forward a hundred years, and artifacts begin popping up all over the Mediterranean, beginning with those masters of civilization in Europe, the ancient Greeks. From roughly 4000 BC, it is clear from archaeological evidence that the Greeks were big fans of wine (later Greeks even dedicated a god – Dionysus – to wine, merriment, and general debauchery). More jars and clay pots have been unearthed containing thousands of grape seeds and there have been plenty of finds to suggest that wine played a key role in Greek society. From roughly the same period, historians have found a full winery, buried beneath the streets of Armenia. This winery, next to an ancient cemetery, is the earliest known evidence of wine being used in a religious context. This was an era of great civilizations and empires, and none at the time were perhaps as mighty as the Egyptians. Egypt between the years of 3000 BC and 1500 BC was the greatest and most powerful country on earth, and it is the place where the concept of industry and mass agriculture was born, helping the ever-growing population survive the long, dry summers and unpredictable climates, where famine and drought was never far away. Drink Like an Egyptian It is no surprise then, that the earliest evidence of large scale, industrial winemaking comes from Egypt, and that it was a consistent and developing industry that spanned the entire rise and fall of their empire. There is a wealth of evidence and plenty of surviving artifacts from ancient Egypt connected with wine – tools, jars, paintings and drawings, and importantly, writing. The Egyptians liked to record their business transactions and details of their trade, and so we know that they liked to import wine from as far away as Palestine, and that the wines of the Pharoahs, the most treasured wines, came from Lebanon (which today is beginning to reassert itself as a world-class producer of wine). What is most wonderful about the Egyptian artifacts is that we have the world’s first wine labels, which really aren’t so different to those we have today, displaying the year of vintage, the name of the appellation and winery (examples include the ‘House of Aton perched high on the Western Nile’) and the name of the vintner. What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us? Towards the end of the Egyptian age, the Romans had well and truly arrived. Those inventive, industrious and ruthless Italians had taken over much of the known world with their advanced technologies and their military tactics, and wine was made in vast quantities across their empire. Safer to drink than water, and believed to have healing and nutritious properties not attributed to other fermented drinks, wine was the drink of the gods and the fuel for the enormous armies which marched across Europe, Asia and Africa. The city of Pompeii, famously destroyed-yet-preserved by the volcanic eruption that went down in legend, allows us a unique glimpse into the homes and everyday lives of normal Roman citizens. What do we find in almost every house? Jar upon jar of wine, grown and produced nearby in the fertile, volcanic soils. Roman wines were the first to be aged: Pliny wrote how many wines were aged for up to ten years to produce more delicious flavors, and they were also often spiced and flavored with honey, resin and other exotic ingredients. We may never know exactly how the wines of the ancients tasted, but we do know that with every glass and in every bottle, we are enjoying a drink which has an unbroken chain which reaches back to the very dawn of time. Wine has seen empires rise and fall, has seen man step out of the shadows, and may have had a hand in the development of civilization itself. Long may it continue. Cheers!