What’s Old That’s New Again

Posted by Vicki on February 17, 2017

Ever wonder how this whole wine thing started? I mean, who first picked grapes and made alcohol? There is a ton of dispute over where it all began, naturally, because so many regions want to claim they discovered (invented?) this enchanting liquid. But the best history sources say it started between the Black and Caspian Seas in Transcaucasia (and area that includes Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan). Or maybe in eastern Turkey, the Levant or northern Iran. Bet you didn’t expect those possibilities.

To mark an even earlier start, one of the great wine historians, Hugh Johnson, has pointed out that grapes and the people to gather them have been around for two million years. Grape juice starts to ferment so easily that it wouldn’t take much for leftover grapes, and their juice, to have been found to yield an intoxicating drink back in prehistoric times.

Fortunately for historians, it turns out grape seeds last through the ages, so archeologists have found piles of them, indicating the grapes were domesticated, and carbon dated them. While Stone Age grape seeds have been found in Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, the first seeds indicating cultivation of the vines, were found in The Republic of Georgia, dating from the period 7,000-5,000BC. So I’d say Georgia is the winner so far.

The residue of wine itself has been found in clay pots in Iran dated from 7,400 years ago. These vessels, called kvevri, were used and are still used in Georgia, to ferment, store and age wine, often underground. Photo below.

The most amazing thing is that the first winery was discovered in Armenia dating from 4100 BC. Archeologists found a wine press, fermentation vats, jars and cups.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, wine has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. Not only have humans held their wine dear for a long, long time, but we’ve held the vines dear too. If you’ve ever been to my classes you’ve heard repeatedly about how the Romans brought vines to whatever country they were conquering. And one of the most interesting cases of traveling grapevines is the Zinfandel grape.

We know Zinfandel as a California grape. But did you know that its ancestry is traced to Italy, where its Primitivo grape has the identical DNA to Zin. But the best part is that Primitivo and Zinfandel are also identical to the Croatian grapes Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag. The grape made its way from Croatia to Italy in the 18th century and to the United States in the mid-19th century. It makes sense when you look at the map below and see that Croatia lies just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. Grapes were brought by travelers from one country to another long ago. Now, grapes might not be carried by horse to a new home, but grapes from everywhere are tried out in all kinds of other regions.

Carrying vines from their old home to a new one was a leap of faith that the experiment would work. In fact, over many centuries winemakers experimented with winegrowing and wine making techniques. They planted a lot of different vines and found which ones made the best wine when grown in a certain area. They made a lot of mistakes to be sure and got a lot of things right. We take the current Old World regions and their grapes as a given, but it took a lot to get to this point. For the New World the journey is still underway.  We’re still figuring out which varietals will ultimately make the best wines in a given location.

What does this history mean for the future of wine? A couple of things.

1. First, we’re going through big changes in how and where wine grapes are grown. Climate change has caused many vineyards to literally pick up and move to cooler regions. If a vineyard was located in an area where it was almost too warm to grow grapes consistently, those regions are now too warm for winegrowing. And so these vineyards have had to find new homes.

In places where the vineyards remain in their historical locations, growing seasons are ending earlier and the higher temperatures are changing the profiles of vintages, making some red wines juicier and higher in alcohol (because of high sugar levels in the juice). Regions that were just too cold to grow wine grapes are now sporting legitimate wines, like England and its highly rated sparkling wines.

Where this will all lead is a real question at this point, but the predictions are for more dramatic changes. Will cool weather-loving grapes be replaced by warm weather-loving grapes in a newly warmer region? How many regions will be forced to stop growing wine grapes? Examples of changes already happening are in my earlier post on climate change.  This means more experimentation after years, maybe centuries, of some certainty.

2. The second point is that in the New World, we’re starting to see that the experimentation that occurred over centuries in Europe is starting to happen here with more gusto. It’s expensive to experiment in a vineyard and be proven wrong. Heck, it’s scary to experiment at all in such an expensive industry. But we’re starting to see it in this country just a bit.

For example, in Virginia, the winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards in Charlottesville, Italian-born Luca Paschina, is experimenting with growing grapes indigenous to Italy. After growing the standards (read: popular moneymakers) – Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Viognier – he’s experimented with a variety of Italian grapes, some more successfully than others, and is now bottling white wines made from the warm-weather loving Vermentino grape. Once he saw that the grape did well after planting it on only one acre, Pachina planted more and more since his first vintage in 2010. So experimentation to match the grapes to the land and climate are picking up.

The good news is that Americans seem to be clamoring for a change from the tried and true and toward the unfamiliar. If the market accepts good, new (at least for this country) wines, then winemakers will be encouraged to experiment even more.

So expand your repertoire once in awhile and try something new. You’ll encourage more trial and error and the new wine may be the best thing you ever tried.  Cheers!