John Szabo’s VINTAGES Preview – March 17th, 2018

G.R.A.P.E.: Uncovering 8,000 Year-Old Wine, and other European Discoveries
By John Szabo, MS, with notes by David Lawrason, Michael Godel and Sara d’Amato

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Nobody had to invent wine. It makes itself. Once juice is released from berries, naturally occurring yeasts get to work on converting sugar to alcohol, without any needed encouragement. It stands to reason then that if you can find the region where wild grapevines were first domesticated, then you’ll also find the place where wine was first ‘made’. This is the logic that led a team of University of Toronto Archaeologists to the Republic of Georgia, where they unearthed evidence of wine production dated to 5900 BC, the oldest yet known. But how did they know they had found wine? Read on for the archaeological proof. In this report we’ll also share our top picks from the VINTAGES March 17th release, focused on the theme of “European Discoveries”. For us that meant lesser known regions and unfamiliar producers. We think you’ll find some worthy discoveries in the Buyers’ Guide.

G.R.A.P.E.: Uncovering 8,000 Year-Old Wine

“Everybody in Georgia knows the University of Toronto”, enthused Konstantin Kavtaradze, the Georgian ambassador to Canada earlier this week while introducing a presentation of archeological findings at U of T’s Woodsworth College. “And it’s because of the GRAPE project”.

The Gadachrili Gora Regional Archaeological Project Expedition, or GRAPE, is a project of the Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations at U of T. Among the principal aims of GRAPE was to find the ancient origins of wine. And considering the importance of wine to Georgian culture – it’s embedded in just about every aspect of Georgian life – it’s not surprising that the extraordinary findings of GRAPE have caused a national, and even international stir.

GRAPE co-directors Stephen Batiuk and Andrew Graham represent the Canadian component of a larger international, interdisciplinary project involving DNA specialists, paleobotanists, climatologists, and archaeologists from the United States, Denmark, France, Italy, and Israel.

Gadachrili Gora - Photo Credit: Andrew Graham

Gadachrili Gora – Photo Credit: Andrew Graham

Following the excavations of two villages that date back the Neolithic period (10,000 to 4,000 years ago) and analysis of fragments recovered at the sites, they released evidence late last year pointing to wine production in the region of Gadachrili Gora, Georgia, about 50 kilometers south of the capital Tbilisi, dated to around 8,000 years ago. That’s about 1,000 years earlier than the previously accepted origins of wine discovered at a site in modern-day Iran. “We believe this is the oldest example of wine being made from the Eurasian grapevine,” said Batiuk.

It’s widely accepted that wild grapevines were first domesticated in the South Caucasus region, which covers modern-day Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and which is part of the larger Fertile Crescent that stretches from Egypt on the Mediterranean Sea to the northern shores of the Persian Gulf.

That Georgia boasts nearly 600 indigenous grape varieties, identified so far, is a strong indication of a very long history of domestication and interbreeding.

As Batiuk pointed out during his presentation, “Nobody had to ‘invent’ wine. Wine would have happened everywhere grapes grew. And grapes were first domesticated in the Caucasus.”

The evidence that wine was produced at Gadachrili Gora is based on state-of-the-art chemical analysis of residues taken from eight ancient jars believed to have contained wine, discovered at the site. Undertaken by Patrick McGovern of University of Pennsylvania (the “godfather” of the study of ancient alcohol, according to Batiuk), tartaric, malic, succinic and citric acids were identified in the residues, which are fingerprints of wine.

Jar Sample unearther at Gadachrili Gora. Photo courtesy of J. Olszewski (1)

Jar Sample unearther at Gadachrili Gora. Photo courtesy of J. Olszewski

Tartaric is the most important acid in both grapes and in wine but is rare in other plants, leading to the conclusion that the vessels contained grape juice in some form. Malic acid, though also found in significant concentrations in apples, for example (the names comes from malum, Latin for apple), is also a signature of grapes, and to a lesser extent, wine. But succinic acid was the tip-off that the grape juice must have fermented. It is present in only trace amounts in ripe grapes, but is created as a by-product of fermentation, from the metabolization of nitrogen by yeast cells.

Additional, indirect evidence for the presence of grapes/wine was provided by palynological studies – grape pollens in particular – which were also found, along with epidermal grape cells, vine starches and bits of insects, like the microscopic hairs of fruit flies still inevitably found in wineries the world over, especially during fermentation.

These pieces of evidence are, “less indicative of wine itself, but more the process”, continues Batiuk, also noting that vine starches in particular, “would suggest that the stems were included in the fermentation and aging process, similar to the modern qvevri method. This is admittedly a bit of a stretch based on that limited data, but in reality, since the qvevri method is a very basic mode of production, it is a logical jump”.

The qvevri, the uniquely-shaped terra cotta vessels unique to Georgia and found at the dig site, is still commonly used for wine production in Georgia today. Following traditional methods, grape juice, skins, seeds, stems and all, of both red and white grapes, are put into qvevris buried in the ground and left to ferment and age for up to a year or more. In fact, qvevri wine making is so important to the country’s traditions that UNESCO declared it an intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2013: “The tradition of Qvevri wine-making defines the lifestyle of local communities and forms an inseparable part of their cultural identity and inheritance, with wine and vines frequently evoked in Georgian oral traditions and songs.”

Ancient Georgian qvevri - Photo Credit: Andrew Graham

Ancient Georgian qvevri – Photo Credit: Andrew Graham

As though further evidence were needed, ambassador Kavtaradze proffered a tantalizing linguistic proof that Georgia is the origin of wine: “It has been suggested that the Latin word for wine, “vino”, which is the origin of virtually all modern European words for wine [except in the Basque and Hungarian languages], actually has its roots in the Georgian word “ghvino”.

So, there you have it. Georgia, a tiny country of 4.5m people between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, is the cradle of wine, with an unbroken history of production stretching back 8000 years. Raise a glass of Georgian qvevri wine today – you’ll be partaking in the world’s oldest wine tradition.

Buyers Guide to VINTAGES March 17th:

European White, Rosé & Sparkling

Matthias et Emile Roblin 2015 Le Enclos de Maimbray Sancerre, AC Loire, France ($34.95)
John Szabo – Though Sancerre is hardly a discovery, Domaine Roblin is, making its debut at VINTAGES. This 4-generation family affair in the Château de Mainbray farms average 25 year-old vines on Kimmeridgian and Portlandian limestones, which here yield a restrained and subtle wine, though flavours are more pronounced and focused on the palate. I like the cool, stony-mineral, lightly herbal but not overtly green profile, all citrus and green apple, with impressive depth and length. I’m always intrigued when such seemingly light wines manage to hang on the palate for so long. A textbook Sancerre, particularly vibrant for the vintage. Best 2018-2023.…

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John Szabo, MS

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