France may be the winemaking capital of the world, but it’s not the birthplace. In a paper published last week in the peer-reviewed Journal of Archaeological Science, a UCLA-led international research team stated that it found the world’s oldest winery in an Armenian cave in the Little Caucasus Mountains, close to Armenia’s southern border with Iran.
It is also the same site where the team found the world’s oldest leather shoe in June 2010, which the scientists carbon-dated to be 5,500 years old. Earlier excavations also found what is believed to be the oldest preserved human brain.
Although people have found evidence of wine drinking dating back to 6000 BC, none have pointed towards an actual winery operation this old.
According to the AP, “the earliest comparable remains were found in the tomb of the ancient Egyptian king Scorpion I, dating to around 5,100 years ago.” The cave is within 60 miles of Mount Ararat, a hypothesized landing site for Noah’s Ark. A biblical story in the book of Genesis says this is where Noah planted a vineyard, harvested and fermented grapes, and then got drunk off his wine. The team jokingly calls the cave “Noah’s winery.”
The clay fermentation vats, wine press, storage jars and grape vines and seeds found by the research team date back to the Copper Age about 6,000 years ago. This is the same time period when it is thought that humans invented the wheel, planted seeds, drew pictograms and domesticated horses.
All remnants in the cave were remarkably well-preserved because the cave’s roof, thought to have collapsed during a major earthquake around 3500 BC, sealed them under an airtight layer of rock, sheep dung and other debris. Plum and apricot remains indicate that there were also orchards nearby.
The wine press is a 3.5-foot-long basin, suggesting that the grapes were pressed with bare feet. Researchers believe the winemakers drained the juice into a 14 to 15 gallon vat, and then stored the wine in jars to ferment.
“It’s the oldest proven case of documented and dedicated wine production, stretching back the horizons of this important development by thousands of years,” said excavation co-director Dr. Gregory Areshian. Before last week, the oldest known winery was on the West Bank, dating back to 1650 BC.
According to Areshian, “the wine would be comparable to a modern unfiltered red wine, and may have had a similar taste to a merlot.” Botanists determined the species to be Vitis vinifera, the same one used to produce most of today’s red wine.
“This was almost surely not wine used at the end of the day to unwind… This was a relatively small installation related to the ritual inside the cave,” Areshian told Reuters. “For daily consumption they would have had much larger wine presses in the regular settlement.”
At least eight bodies have been found at a nearby cemetery, which has researchers theorizing that the wine was made for mourning rituals and used in “ceremonies relating to the process of commemorating the dead and related to different cults and rituals for the netherworld.”
Pottery shards found there by the team came from as far as central Iran and southern Asia. Researchers still don’t know who exactly these winemakers were, but this certainly does suggest that significant trade occurred in the region.
“The discovery is important,” National Geographic stated in its announcement, “because winemaking is seen as a significant social and technological innovation among prehistoric societies.”
“This find shows that there was a high degree of agriculture and horticultural skill even back in 4000 BC,” said Areshian. “Producing this wine would have been high technology of the time incorporating detailed knowledge of watering cycles, pruning the vines, how to deal with pests and the fermentation process itself, which is more complex than brewing beer.”
When it comes to understanding ancient cultures and civilization, researchers traditionally fall back on Egypt and Mesopotamia, but the discovery of this winery shows that “there were many, many specialized and unique centers of civilization in the ancient world,” Areshian said, “and we can only understand it as a mosaic of these peoples.”
Photo courtesy of Mr. T in DC via Flickr