The world’s oldest winery


My wife and I are wine enthusiasts. We belong to all the local wine societies, have written about wine for local magazines, occasionally conduct wine tastings and we’ve even got our own wine-related website, The Willetts on Wine (

That being the case, I keep an eye on wine news: and this past week an interesting wine story cropped up, when scientists from America, Armenia and Ireland reported finding the oldest known winemaking operation—they dated it to about 6,100 years ago—in an Armenian cave.

Wine begins, obviously, with grape juice, extracted either by mechanical means (squeezing the grapes in a press) or by the time-honored method of stomping the grapes with your feet.

Once you’ve got juice, you put it in a vat to ferment. These days cultured yeasts are often added, but you don’t really need them: the natural yeasts present on the grape skins will bring about fermentation on their own.

In the fermentation process, the yeast feeds on sugar, converting it to alcohol. The longer the wine ferments, the more alcohol it will have and the less sugar, resulting in what we call a “dryer”—i.e., less sweet—wine. However, fermentation can be stopped at any point to produce a sweeter wine.

If you just ferment the juice, you get a white wine, no matter what color grapes you start with. The color in red wine comes from the grape skins: the alcohol produced during fermentation leaches the color from the skins into the wine. Remove the skins before you start fermentation, and no color appears.

Alcohol also leaches tannin from the skins, which is why red wines have an astringency white wines lack. As red wine ages, the tannins combine with the coloring, precipitating out as sediment. This is why well-aged red wines generally taste  less astringent than young wines, and also why old bottles of wine have a lot of sediment in the bottom.

In addition to alcohol, fermentation can produce various other chemicals—glycerol, esters, aldehydes and acids—all of which affect the quality of the finished product. This immensely complicated mixture of chemicals is what makes every wine unique.

Within that Armenian cave, the researchers first found grape seeds in 2007. Last fall, they found a shallow, thick-rimmed clay basin, about three by 3 1/2 feet, where people probably stomped grapes; it’s positioned so that the juice would pour into a two-foot-deep vat for fermentation.

They also discovered storage jars, a clay bowl, a drinking cup made from an animal horn, dried pressed grapes, stems, shriveled grapevines and grape residue. A chemical analysis confirmed that, indeed, red wine was produced there.

Everything in the cave is well-preserved beneath a layer of sheep dung and a white crust on the karst limestone walls, which makes it a remarkable site, providing unprecedented insight into life in the Copper Age, a time when many other innovations came along, including the wheel and domesticated horses.

Although this is the oldest known winemaking site, wine residue has been found in jars in Iran dating back even further, to 7,400 years ago.

Wine must have been very important to the cave-users, who went to a lot of trouble to build an elaborate facility that, after all, was used only once a year. The researchers suspect it was used for ritual purposes rather than general drinking, since there are numerous burial sites near the cave. The speculation is that the wine was drunk to honor or appease the dead, and may also have been sprinkled on the graves.

The cave has several chambers that researchers believe were used for rituals by high-status people, with others, possibly caretakers, living in the front of the cave. The researchers have also found holes filled with dried fruit and a metallurgical operation for smelting and casting copper.

Oh, and not long ago the team made news for discovering the oldest known leather shoe (a laced cowhide moccasin possibly worn by a woman with a size 7 foot), dated to 5,500 years ago.

As some wag on the Internet put it,  that proves “we were drinking wine at least 600 years before we started wearing shoes.”

I wouldn’t go that far. But you’d have to agree that the making of fermented beverages was one of the earliest of human social activities.

Wine and civilization, it seems, go hand in hand.

I’ll drink to that!

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