Raise a glass to Georgia, which could now be the birthplace of wine.
The country, which straddles the fertile valleys of the south Caucasus Mountains between Europe and the Middle East, may have been home to the first humans to conquer the common grape, giving rise to chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and thousands of other reds and whites we enjoy today.
In a study published Monday, researchers found wine residue on pottery shards from two archaeological sites in Georgia dating back to 6,000 B.C. The findings are the earliest evidence so far of wine made from the Eurasian grape, which is used in nearly all wine produced worldwide.
“Talk about aging of wine. Here we have an 8,000-year-old vintage that we’ve identified,” said Patrick McGovern, a molecular archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and lead author of the study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The findings push back the previous date for the oldest evidence of winemaking by about 600 to 1,000 years, which Dr. McGovern previously identified in Iran. But it does not dethrone China as the location of the earliest known fermented beverage, which Dr. McGovern dated to 7,000 B.C. That drink, however, was most likely a cocktail consisting of rice, honey, hawthorn fruit and wild grapes, unlike this most recent finding which was pure grape wine.
Wine culture has long been intertwined with the history of Georgia, where elaborate toasts are an important part of traditional feasts. Archaeologists have found evidence of its consumption there during the Bronze Age, Classical Period, Greco-Roman Period and Medieval times. Georgian wine was also among the most favored in the Soviet Union.
“Georgia had always suspected it had a Neolithic wine, there were several claims,” said David Lordkipanidze, the general director of the Georgian National Museum and an author on the paper. “But now there is real evidence.”
To uncork the mystery of the oldest wine, Dr. McGovern and his team searched the remains of two villages from the Neolithic era — or the last part of the Stone Age — about 30 miles south of the capital Tbilisi. Clay vessels found at these Neolithic sites and others in Georgia suggest the people most likely stored their wine in large, round jars as big as 300 liters, enough to hold about 400 bottles. They also probably buried them underground to ferment, which is still practiced in Georgia to this day.
The team retrieved several jar shards from the sites, which they then chemically analyzed. To their surprise, eight had telltale signs of wine residue long absorbed into the pottery, including tartaric acid, which is like a flashing neon light indicating traces of grape, as well as malic, succinic and citric acids. Dr. McGovern said that to his knowledge, the combination of these four acids is only found in grape wine.
Radiocarbon dating of the site dated jar shards to the years 6,000 to 5,800 B.C. The team also found traces of ancient grape pollen, starch from grape wine and remains from Neolithic fruit flies. They did not find any DNA or pigments on the residue so they could not say whether it was red or white wine.
Although it is possible these prehistoric people were just making grape juice, Stephen Batiuk, an archaeologist from the University of Toronto and an author on the study, said the decorations on the jars implied they were used to store something important, like wine.
Robert Desalle, a molecular biologist at the American Museum of Natural History and co-author of the book “A Natural History of Wine,” called the study “airtight,” adding that the findings will prompt him to rewrite the chapter in his book about the oldest site for winemaking.
Andrew Waterhouse, a wine chemist at the University of California, Davis, agreed, saying that finding succinic acid indicated that fermentation had taken place.
But he suggested that humanity’s love affair with wine most likely extended deeper into the archaeological record. The animal hides probably used by even earlier prehistoric peoples who fermented grapes into wine most likely decayed over thousands of years, so pottery remains our best bet for discovering how humanity first got buzzed.