Wine is among the most popular drinks worldwide. It is also one of the oldest drinks, although it is not completely clear where it originally comes from, and why we like it so much. E&M author Laura Worsch takes us on a journey through centuries and countries to find answers to these questions.
The origins of this article go back to a conflict which has been going on forever – the fight between Armenia and Georgia over who can claim to be the “cradle of wine”. This fight is fought verbally, cynically – but nonetheless seriously. At its bottom lie the general superstitions and prejudices each country holds against the other. Both Armenian and Georgian archaeologists, intellectuals and people on the street will assure you that wine actually, for sure, originates from their respective country.
As a person who enjoys wine in its various shades, grapes, and temperatures, I have set out to clear the wafts of mist that lie over the origin of wine, like the ones in our heads after a night of drinking. The question is not only interesting in historical terms but also, as the quarrel between Georgians and Armenians shows, in a sociological sense. Wine is part of religions, identities and ultimately, an important aspect of many national economies.
Human genes and ancient rites
Historically, it is difficult to confidently identify the birthplace of wine because it has been part of human evolution since the very start. The “Drunken Monkey Hypothesis” by Robert Dudley describes how our ancestors accidentally consumed wine through fermented grapes that were lying on the ground for too long (not something to try at home). The more fermented, the more sugar the fruit contains. Some of our human ancestors had a higher alcohol resistance than others which allowed them to consume large amounts of highly fermented products which, apart from the nice side effect of getting drunk, proved to be an evolutionary advantage. Until today, Chimpanzees in Guinea are observed to actively consume fermented palm sap in large quantities, despite an alcohol percentage of up to 6.9 %.
Egyptian pharaohs took jars of wine to their grave to juice up their afterlife: Pharaoh Scorpion I. was buried with more than 4.000 litres of wine
Until the first nomads settled, around 10.000-8.000 BC, a systemic production and consumption of wine was difficult. When they did, the domestication of animals and cultivation of certain plants began. Although the first attempts did probably not taste anything like wine today, it still enjoyed fast-growing popularity. Furthermore, the consumption and usage of wine for religious purposes can be traced throughout time and religions. For example, Egyptian pharaohs took jars of wine to their grave in order to juice up their afterlife: Pharaoh Scorpion I. (around 3.200 BC) was buried with more than 4.000 litres of wine! At that time, Egyptians did supposedly not produce their own wine yet, but had it imported. And, of course, it was the leader of Christianity himself who turned out to be the world’s most gifted winemaker – by simply turning water into wine.
Modern politicization of wine
Another testimony for the importance of wine in ancient cultures is the Greek god Dionysus. Above all known as the god of wine, his responsibilities also cover fertility and vegetation, as well as (ritual) madness and festivity. These different manifestations show the ambivalent meanings of the drink, still visible today: in most Western societies, wine is a common part of everyday life. Many countries nowadays produce their own wine, with Spain, France, and Italy being the biggest producers. Between 2014 and 2018, 60 percent of the wine production worldwide was located in the European Union. However, in other countries wine, and alcohol in general, is seen as more critical. In the Islamic Republic of Iran it is forbidden to consume any kind of alcohol since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Before that, the country used to have over 300 wineries whose experience went back centuries. Today, the private (and of course secretive) production and consumption of wine is a form of indirect protest against the Iranian government. At the same time, the black market and lack of quality controls accelerate alcoholism and alcohol poisoning in the country.
Wine is political, as the Iranian example shows. Returning to the quarrel between Georgia and Armenia: for these countries too, winemaking has political implications. Both are old viticultures that experienced a setback during Soviet times, due to Gorbachev’s Anti-Alcohol campaign in the late 1980s. While Georgia is on the road to recovery and continues to increase its exports to the EU (after Russia repeatedly banned Georgian wine imports, last time in 2019), Armenia is still struggling to revive its wine culture.
To finally answer the article’s original question of which country is responsible for the origin of wine, both Georgia and Armenia have legitimate claims to make. Scientists have identified certain types of wild grapes, which already grew thousands of years ago in the region where Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia are situated today. Many grapes share genetic details with this first wild grape. It is, therefore, very likely that the first systematic wine production happened in this region.
For a long time, Iran was said to host the oldest site of winemaking in the north of the country. The jars found in the village Hajji Firuz Tepe date back to 5.400-5.000 BC to the times of the Persian empire, and are therefore up to 7.400 years old. Yet, between 2012 and 2016, a team of archaeologists led by Patrick McGovern (University of Pennsylvania) found evidence of domesticated wine production in Georgia that dates back even further: the pieces of wine jars (in Georgian they’re called kvevri) found are between 7.800 to 8.000 years old, as an examination of themfrom 2017 attests for. However, Armenia’s claim is based on a site next to Areni, where an entire production site, including tools, was found: the grape juice was pressed and filtered through plaster floors and then caught in underground jars. The site is around 6.000 years old, and the oldest production plant found so far.
Comparing these three cases, the math seems easy, and one is about to proclaim Georgia the winner – but one should not ignore the very last paragraph of Patrick McGovern’s study. It states that the “earliest chemically confirmed grape wine” was found in the Yellow Valley of China and was produced around 7.000 BC. To make it even more complicated, this “beverage was not purely a grape wine, like that in the South Caucasus appears to have been, but was combined with hawthorn fruit wine, rice beer, and honey mead.“
At what point is wine actual wine? I give up, and pour myself a glass of red wine instead.
Cover photo: Henri Bergius (Unsplash license)