The geologic foundation of the mystical concept of terroir dates back at least 60 million years. The earliest evidence of grapes on this planet are the fossilized vines that grew during the Cenozoic period.
They were pulled from the rocks, telling of a long marriage between soil and plant. Fossil evidence also tells us that grapes were growing in present-day Champagne during the Tertiary period, around 100,000 years ago. Archaeological studies have shown these vines to be vitis sezannensis, which were unrelated to vitis vinifera — the grape species known to produce fine wines — and eventually disappeared into history soon after.
Whether humans had some type of relation to grapes before actually cultivating them is unknown. Perhaps long before the people of northern China stumbled across fermentation almost 9,000 years ago others too had found the chemical magic at work.
We do know that cultivation first took hold about 6,000 years ago around the Caspian Sea in Mesopotamia, the site of present day Iran. It became stronger during the rise of Egypt, around 2,500 B.C. Priests and royalty were allowed the pleasures of the grape in liquid form. The Egyptian cultivators were credited with the first vineyard pruning techniques for the purposes of quality control.
About one thousand years later, the Greeks introduced wine and commerce to one another. Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” both referred to wine. During this time wine was sent sailing on ships. The wine which was to be imported was often laced with strong herbs to mask the characteristics of spoilage. Wine was introduced to the socially elite through the symposia, which gave rise to both philosophical dialogue and wine expertise. The simposiarca — young boys thought to be chosen by the gods — were in charge of conversation and the libation, in a sense the first sommeliers. Greek doctors were the first to prescribe wine for various maladies.
Almost 2,000 years later, after the time of Christ, the Romans began to classify grape varietals, identify diseases and soil type preferences, chart ripening characteristics and implement advances in pruning, irrigation and fertilization. They also adapted the first wooden barrels. The Romans followed the Greek legacy and began importing wine to Spain, Germany and France.
One of these bottles, from roughly 325 A.D. was unearthed near Speyer, Germany. The wine bottle was found inside one of two Roman stone sarcophaguses that were dug up in 1867. The bottle was a greenish yellow color with dolphin shaped handles and contained a hazy, sedimented liquid. It also contained an olive oil float likely to keep the wine from spoiling. You can see this bottle in a museum in the German riesling producing region of Pfalz.
And an 816-year-old bottle of Ode’Licious-a type of Greek rose-sold for one hundred thousand Euros at an auction in 1993.
But the oldest bottle yet found was believed to be over 2,000 years old, from an ancient tomb near Xi’an in western China. The contents of that phoenix head-like bottle were a type of rice wine.
Perhaps history will continual to reveal itself and tell us more about the fabled origins of wine and wine making. But for now, its just more to ponder as you crack open that 2007.
Cheers! Remember, wine reveals truth.
Drew Stofflet lives in Carbondale. Correspond with him at firstname.lastname@example.org