Friday, April 19, 2013

Scientist's quest for the origin of wine explained at the Cliveden

Dr. Patrick McGovern
by Jana Shea for NewsWorks

19.04.2013 Wine lovers enjoyed tastings and a journey into the past at a lecture titled "The Quest for Wine's Origins" on Friday evening led by Dr. Patrick McGovern, scientific director at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.The event was the second in a series "Who Said History has to be Dry?", presented by the Cliveden.

Every society has its preferred fermented beverage, McGovern said. Wine is one that has played a central role in many cultures.

Wine, intoxicating by its alcohol content alone, also often had healing effects from the inclusion of native herbs, some medicinal. These qualities made wine especially important in religious ceremonies and social life, as well as an agent of creative inspiration.

Archaeological discoveries of vessels containing wine act as "liquid time capsules" to give insight about early viniculture and its range of flavors, he stated.

Reconstructing wine's past

The earliest wine making discovery dates back to in 5400 BC in Hajji Firuz, Iran, McGovern stated. Six vessels were unearthed, two of which are currently housed in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Each had residue that tested positive for tartaric acid, which can be found in grapes.

McGovern says there is plenty of evidence that viniculture may go back to much earlier times. An early type of goblet, dated circa 8000 BC, was discovered in eastern Turkey. The imagery carved into it suggests that it may have been used to drink wine. "When you get people dancing, especially with turtles, you start to think 'Well, they got something in that goblet that's not just water'," he said.

It was around this time, too, that the domestication of the grape began. McGovern says grape domestication likely originated in the Caucasus mountains. Some of the earliest known grape seeds, dating back to 7000 BC, were collected in Shulvari, Georgia.

Georgia exemplifies the wine culture, where "almost every event in life is somehow marked by wine," he said. Georgians claim an 8000-year tradition in wine making that involves nine months fermentation in qveri, clay vessels that are buried in the ground.

DNA analysis of 136 cultivated and 137 wild grapes species overlap most closely with Turkish and Georgian grapes, he shared. Muscat is thought to be one of the earliest varietals.

The principal grape cultivators used in wine today, such as Pinot Noir, originated in Middle East.

Ancient Phoenicians, with their knowledge of ship building, wine making and use of clay wine jars called amphora, likely introduced the beverage to others through trade, McGovern said.

There are depictions of wine making found in Egypt dating as early as 2000 BC, with graphic images of trellis and irrigation systems and hieroglyphic lyrics of songs of worship that would have been sung during the extraction process. Amphora stamped with information concerning dynasty, ruler, place of origin and even basic quality rating served as early wine labels, he remarked.

Wine subsequently traveled to the Mediterranean. It was in the Roman period that that tree resin began to be added to the wine making process. This early wine was called Retsina and is still produced today.

Into the modern era

McGovern says French wine making has a much younger history, dating back to circa 500 BC. A project he has nearly completed in Lattes, France, as part of identifying secondary domestication centers, uncovered evidence of a connection to Etruria.  The Etruscans, perhaps inspired by the Phoenicians, brought wine to France. Amphoras very specific to Caere, Etruria have been found at Lattes, he said.

Today, 99 percent of the wine consumed comes from domesticated grapes which have been developed for color, sweetness and thickness of skin. Most wines made in the Americas have their origins in the Old World.

Ultimately wine traveled because people wanted to impress others with their own product, McGovern noted.

"Wine is that kind of elite beverage that does that," he quipped. "Once you get a taste of wine, you want your own vineyards."


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