The origins of wine and beer


The Origins of Wine and Beer: DMA Pours Out the Facts

Andrew Chalk

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According to Dr. Patrick McGovern, wine may date back as far as 8500 BC. McGovern knows his stuff. He is the director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Last night he gave an interesting lecture to the public at the Dallas Museum of Art. The lecture was part of the The Boshell Family Lecture Series on Archaeology and, in the space of an hour, saw Dr. McGovern cover almost two millennia of the archaeological evidence of wine and its place in society.

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The earliest evidence consists of faint clues of the existence of wine in the form of traces of tartaric acid in clay vessels (liquid that may have come from wine). In later civilizations, pictorial art and writing is more conclusive. Likely in the hot climate of what is now Georgia, Iran, and Eastern Turkey, fruit stored in clay pots was crushed under its own weight. In the hot climate and in the presence of natural yeasts on the skins it began to ferment within a day. The result was fruit wine, although it would have been a far cry from its modern counterpart. No bottles existed to store it in and there were no corks to seal the liquid, so clay pots with clay bungs in the top did the job. Presumably, if the wine spoiled due to a defective stopper, you could say it was ‘clayed’ rather than corked. The earliest parallel to the use of oak may tree resin added as a preservative (that was found to have occurred before 4000BC), not oak barrels.

There was a thriving wine industry in Egypt in 3,000BC.  The results were expensive and the product the preserve of royalty. Gradually, grapes and winemaking spread to Europe. The Phoenicians took grapes to Greece where beer making also thrived and the Greeks transported them to Etruria. The Etruscans moved them to southern France. A remarkable and consistent phenomenon is how lightly woven into the culture wine becomes in each of the countries where grape growing became significant. This is documented in great detail in Dr. McGovern’s books.

The lecture was followed by a tasting of beer and wine accompanied by hors d’oeuvres. The wine, from Burgundy, seemed to have only the most tenuous link with the Dr.McGovern’s work. However, the beer Dogfish Head Midas Touch Ale was supposedly based on a recipe used to make beer for King Midas, 2700 years ago. He was a lucky King.