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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

A Taste of History in a Glass


Earliest evidence of wine production found in Armenian cave gives scientists insight on ancient, modern methods

Wine is one of the most popular alcoholic beverages in the world. The history of this fine delicacy dates back many millennia. In September of 2010, the earliest evidence of wine production was found in a cave in Armenia, proving that humans systematically produced wine 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.  

According to the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, the first vineyard was planted in present-day Armenian territory after Noah’s Ark landed in the Mountains of Ararat. The discoveries made in the Armenian cave gave archeologists a complete picture of 6,100-year-old wine production for the first time, showing that making wine during that period was on a large scale.

Dr. Nelli Hovhannisyan, a professor at Yerevan State University in Armenia, came to UC Davis in late January to share more about the world’s first-known winery at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science. She is responsible for the excavation of the cave.

“The cellars had different layers,” Hovhannisyan said. “The upper layers were bearing wide pots where the wine remains were very concentrated. There were also old manuscripts describing in detail how people were making raisins.”

The oldest known leather shoe was also discovered in the same cave — dating back 5,500 years. Aside from this artifact, archaeologists excavated drinking cups, a wine press for grape stomping, storage and fermentation vessels, withered grape vines, skins and seeds.

The Areni cave in Armenia contained a large number of seed specimens.

“The grape remains found in the cave were practically perfect,” Hovhannisyan said.

In archeological excavations, near-perfect relics are rare. The main limitation is the number of available samples from each site. Merely five or 10 seeds would limit the statistical confidence in the scientific claims.

“You have to have enough number of seeds with the right level of preservation,” Hovhannisyan said.

Having a large sample size gave scientists greater confidence in their analysis by comparing the ancient grape seeds with modern grapes. Weathering makes it difficult to find perfectly-preserved seeds, but the cave’s natural features gave them a perfect shelter.

Armenia is very interesting because of the old remnants of the vineyards are found in monasteries,” Hovhannisyan said.

The grape stems discovered in the 6,100-year-old cave show very close genetic relationships to those that are still growing in monastery vineyards today. In fact, the same grapes that were used in red wine production today were found in the Armenian cave, collating ancient and modern times.

Back then, the wine was pressed by the stomping of human feet, giving the term “made the old-fashioned way” more specific context. The juices from the crushed grapes were then drained into a tub and were left for fermentation. The wine was kept in clay jars and stored in the cool, dry Areni cave that made the perfect wine cellar.

Shards of pottery were chemically analyzed for signs of wine storage. The clay pots themselves were radiocarbon-dated between 4,100 B.C. and 4,000 B.C. The results showed traces of malvidin, a plant pigment that gives red wine most of its color, is also found in pomegranates — Armenia’s national fruit.

Aside from its historical significance, there are also some modern benefits from this finding, such as disease resistance.

Dr. Summaira Riaz, a researcher in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis, worked with grapevine samples from Armenia in Dr. Andy Walker’s lab. Viticulture is the science of growing farm grapes and enology is the science of making wine. The two branches make the industry that is wine-making.

“We look for natural sources of resistance to different pests and disease to carry out conventional breeding by making crosses of resistance and susceptible varieties,” Riaz said. “This allow us to understand the genetics of resistance and develop molecular tools to speed up breeding process.”

The common grapevine, Vitis vinifera, has over 5,000 different varieties around the world. The UC Davis study used 45 samples of Vitis vinifera from Armenia to analyze the grapevines’ resilient properties. Walker’s lab focuses on breeding disease-resistant grapes to reduce the use of insecticides and fungicides in vineyards.  

“We worked with plant tissue and extracted DNA to carry out DNA fingerprinting, and testing of plants in the field and lab for powdery mildew resistance,” Riaz said.

The research showed that the cultivated grapevines are resistant to mildew.

Riaz attended Hovhannisyan’s talk on the cave’s excavation.

“[The findings] will give us better understanding of natural diversity of plant germplasm [a living tissue that preserves biological diversity] and would allow us to maintain germplasm collections in more efficient way to preserve it for future generations,” Riaz said.

UC Davis is ranked in the top two viticulture and enology programs in the United States. Nicholas Shurden is a UC Davis transfer student from the Lodi area majoring in agricultural business. Last summer, Shurden worked in Napa Valley farming wine grapes, where he was exposed to the various diseases affecting the vineyards. He attended Hovhannisyan’s talk to get a better understanding of the various cultivars.

“This research will play a pivotal role in identifying ancient strains of grapes along with genetic restoration will result in the rebirth of ancient wines being produced again in the 21st century,” Shurden said.

Today, Armenia’s Ararat Valley is like that of California’s Napa Valley — and the wine industry is booming just as well. Wineries are opening all around the country and wine bars are flourishing in Yerevan, the nation’s capital. Over the past few decades, Armenian wines were off the radar, and now they are gaining global recognition.  

In 2012, the Zorah Karasi Areni Noir Armenian wine (2010) was ranked among Bloomberg’s top 10 wines for the year. It was the first vintage wine to be made based on the findings from the Areni cave. Made from Areni noir grapes and aged clay amphora, tasting this red wine is like drinking a part of history.

“One thing I respect about our particular industry — the wine industry — is the willingness to help and share information without prejudice from country to country,” Shurden said.  


Written by: David Madey — science@theaggie.org


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