History of wine

 

Georgia: Homeland of Winemaking and Viticulture
P. E. McGovern
University of Pennsylvania Museum


It has long been claimed that the earliest “wine culture” in the world emerged in the mountainous regions of Transcaucasia--modern Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan--during the Neolithic period (ca. 8500-4000 B.C.). The wild Eurasian grape sub-species (Vitis vinifera sylvestris) still thrives at higher elevations in this region, with its well-drained calcareous hills and valleys, its iron-rich terra rossa loam, and moderate rainfall. Indeed, the greatest genetic variability of Vitis vinifera is to be found in these upland regions, which very often denotes the “world center” of a plant and where it is most likely to have been taken into domestication.


Permanent Neolithic communities had been established in Transcaucasia by at least 6000 B.C., and other essential preconditions (e.g., pottery-making) for the momentous innovation of domesticating the grape and making wine on a larger scale also came together for the first time in human history. Once viniculture had taken hold here, it appears to have radiated out to other parts of the Near East and eventually to Europe and the New World. Supporting this contention, the proto-Indo-European root for “wine,” from which the modern Indo-European, Semitic, and Slavic words are all derived, is believed to have had its origin in the Transcaucasus.

The earliest Neolithic evidence for the beginnings of a true wine culture, in which wine dominated social and economic life, comes from Georgia. Shulaveris-Gora, south of Tbilisi, has yielded what may well be the oldest "domesticated" grape pips (Vitis vinifera vinifera), dating from the early 6th millennium B.C. The domesticated vine’s main advantage over the wild type is that it is self-pollinating, thus enabling it to produce a larger and more predictable fruit crop. Besides selecting plants that yielded larger, juicier, and tastier fruit with fewer seeds, the early Neolithic horticulturalist also discovered how to “clone” the grapevine by rooting and grafting branches.

The invention of pottery during the Neolithic period was crucial for processing, serving, and storing wine. Again, 6th millennium B.C. sites in Georgia--Shulaveri and Khramis-Didi-Gora--have yielded the earliest, most important evidence. Jars, with reddish residues on their interiors (wine lees?), were decorated with exterior appliqués which appear to be grape clusters and jubilant stick-figures, with arms raised high, under grape arbors.

The importance of viniculture in Georgian life only seems to have intensified in later periods, finding new cultural expressions. For example, impressive and unique artifacts characterize the so-called Trialeti culture of the early 2nd millennium B.C. Large burial mounds (kurgans) at Trialeti itself, west of modern Tblisi, and other sites of the period have yielded marvelously ornate gold and silver goblets, often depicting drinking scenes or ceremonies. Grapevine cuttings were even encased in silver, accentuating the intricate nodal pattern of the plant. The latter specimens, with their nearly 4000-year-old wood still intact, are on exhibit, together with several Trialeti goblets, in the treasury room of the Georgian State Museum.

In parts of Georgia today, especially in the Kakheti and Rioni regions, wine is still made in the traditional way by fermenting it, sometimes for several years, in large jars (kwevris) buried up to their necks underground or in artificially created hillocks of multiple kwevris (maranis). While the earliest instance of this tradition can be traced back to the Iron Age (8th- 7th c. B.C.), numerous maranis of the Roman and Byzantine periods have been excavated. Wine production continued unabated after the country’s conversion to Christianity and throughout medieval times, which was partly assured by the centrality of wine in the Eucharist. Yet, as any modern visitor to Georgia will discover, secular life is permeated by wine conventions: hardly a meal passes without the host assuming the role of toastmaster (tamada).

Long-standing traditions of cultivating the grapevine itself are reflected in the numerous, modern red and white grapevine varieties, with such exotic names as Saperavi and Rkatsiteli, whose origins might well go back to the Neolithic period. Prof. Revaz Ramishvili, the head of the Georgian Agricultural University’s viticultural institute, identified the domesticated grape pips at Shulaveri. Both he and his father were pioneers in the botanical study of the Eurasian grape. An intermediate type between the wild and domesticated varieties, first identified by and named for the elder Ramishvili, attests to Georgia’s crucial role in domestication of the plant.

DNA analysis of modern Georgian cultivated Eurasian grapevines s have already established that some of the Georgian varietals (e.g., Maglari Tvrina and Otskhanuri Sapere) are closest to several important varietals of Western Europe, including Pinor Noir, Syrah, and Nebbiolo. This finding implies that the so-called “Noah hypothesis,” which posits an initial domestication event in the mountainous Near Eastern region (eastern Taurus, northwestern Zagros, and Caucasus Mountains), might well have occurred in Georgia. More research is necessary, comparing modern vines from other regions that have thus far not been sampled (especially Azerbaijan and northwestern Iran).

On a recent trip to Georgia in September-October 2008, through the kind auspices of David Lordkipanidze of the National Museum and the antiquities department, I was able to collect crucial, additional samples of ancient wood from the silver-covered Trialeti grapevines. Together with seeds from Shulaveri, we now have the means to carry out a more definitive ancient DNA study, as extraction and analytical methods improve.

Early Neolithic pottery from on-going excavations at Gadachrili, dated to ca. 6000-5700 B.C., was also sampled. Because it was not subjected to a concentrated hydrochloric acid treatment, it should produce more definitive chemical results than samples already tested from Shulaveri and Khramis-Didi-Gora. Preliminary findings from the latter already point toward the presence of tartaric acid/tartrate, the biomarker for grape and wine in the Middle East, inside the Neolithic jars. If substantiated by powerful chemical techniques (viz., liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry), Georgia’s impact on human civilization will have been shown to be very significant and far-reaching, so much so that it might aptly be called the “Cradle of Winemaking.”