Oldest winemaking site in France tells of the grape’s western march

Image originally taken from the Bordeaux Discovered Wine Shop blog (http://bordeaux-undiscovered.co.uk/blog/)

Roman mosaic of a wine press.

My father used to tell me that the Romans, archetypal wine lovers that they were, were smart enough to expand their empire only where the grapevine would grow and no further. If that’s true, France should be very grateful. England, not so much.

Now a new study by archeologists working at an ancient site in southern France has pushed back the earliest confirmed native wine making in the region to around the 6th century BCE. Additionally, we now know the original spreaders of viticulture to that part of the world weren’t the Romans themselves but rather their esteemed predecessors, the Etruscans, from whom they adopted many of their social and religious customs.

The proof came from a trifecta of evidence: some grape leftovers, pieces of pottery, and an ancient wine press, all hailing from the ancient port city of Lattara, just south of the modern city of Montpellier. Lattara once served as an important commercial hub for the Etruscans, and its status as a big deal can be gauged by the fact that may be the sole site* in France where the Etruscan language, an extinct tongue unrelated to Latin and in many ways an isolate, has been found.

To reach their conclusion the researchers gradually fit together the evidence by using simple deduction and not so simple laboratory equipment. The grape remains (consisting of skins and seeds), for example, unequivocally indicated the presence of whole grapes at Lattara. This by itself wasn’t conclusive enough to prove that any ancient winemakers were stomping in full force some twenty five hundred years ago, or that native grapes were used, but it was a start.

Exhibit two featured shattered clay pieces that once belonged to containers known as amphorae. Shaped somewhat like inverted spades with handles and sometimes quite large, amphorae were used to store goods and transport them, especially by boat. There were dozens of different styles, each heralding from a certain region or people, and sometimes included a counter-intuitive ‘foot’, or tapering point, which seemingly made them unable to stand upright. In actuality these feet were used to stick the amphorae in to the earth, or in sand transported aboard ships, both for stability as well as temperature control. This particular style was undeniably Etruscan, and the Etruscans were known as big players in the wine trade: one shipwreck off the Italian coast contained some eight hundred amphorae. That is a lot of wine.

Though their contents are long gone, it is still possible to determine what they contained by using technology that can see what the naked eye cannot. This is where fancy science like gas chronomatography and spectrography is used to pick up and categorize chemical traces leftover in the clay itself.

After analyzing the inner surfaces of the amphorae the researchers were not only able to conclude that wine had sloshed around inside, but resins and spices like thyme, basil, and rosemary had been added to the mix, with the first acting as a preservative and the latter added for flavour or as medicinal ingredients. Now we know Lattara had grapes and traded wine, but did they make their own?

This is where the wine press came in, a rare find by itself. Luckily what worked on the amphorae was just as good when it came to analyzing the wine press itself. The presence of tartaric acid, a key indicator of grapes, was detected on the limestone surface in concentrations strong enough to prove that at some point somebody had employed it to crush grapes. Since it’s unlikely the press was used elsewhere only to be brought over and discarded, it’s safe to say it helped make several Lattaran vintages during its operational lifetime.

This is a notable discovery for several reasons. Besides exposing us to a facet of Lattara’s once vibrant existence, it puts ink to page on an important period of wine’s history and fills in a gap in its expansionary narrative. The French love of wine started in places like Lattara:

Major wine production centers in red. Lattara was where Roussillon is now.

More broadly the paper suggests how the Latin, Greek, and Phoenician communities that existed on the Western Mediterranean periphery between classical and ‘barbarian’ cultures weren’t insular in their use of wine for pleasure and ritual. They interacted with their neighbours culturally and commercially, and one byproduct of this interaction was the spread of wine to such local peoples as the Celts and Iberians, who originally had no native tradition of viticulture. No matter, for they were fast learners: today these regions are some of the finest wine regions in the world.
What the Etruscans planted, the Romans bottled, and you now enjoy. A votre santé!

Check it all out here: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/05/30/1216126110

* Or so I am told by an article without sources

 

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