Vintage brews get the midas touch

November 7, 2003

A vintage wine is a perfect blend of past and present, writes Patrick E. McGovern, but what if we take the process a step further and recreate ancient wines in a modern-day setting?

After analysing the intense yellowish residues inside 8th-century BC bronze vessels, deposited in what is believed to be the tomb of "King Midas" or one of his forebears in central Turkey, I became interested in trying to recreate their contents - biomarkers in the residues, including tartaric acid from grapes, suggested a drink combining wine, beer and mead.

At a beer-tasting event at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, I asked microbrewers whether they could produce a historically accurate (and drinkable) rendition of the beverage.

The permutations were endless. Were the wine, beer and mead made separately and then mixed together? Within two months, we were testing brews. The winning microbrewer opted for a single brew including yellow muscat grapes, since it has been shown by DNA analysis to be related to the earliest cultivated grapes in the Middle East. The grapes were added late in the brewing process at a lower temperature to give a fresh, natural aroma. The bittering agent was yellow saffron, for which Turkey was renowned in antiquity.

The final result, sold as Midas Touch, was a golden-hued drink with reddish highlights - a combination of beer, wine and mead, with a layered muscat aroma and a saffron taste that drew you back for more.

There has been much speculation about how humans first discovered wine. The main problem for the biomolecular archaeologist is that organic containers have not been preserved from the Palaeolithic period (500,000 - 10,000BC).

Moreover, without adequate preservation, the wine would have a restricted production schedule. Therefore, winemaking on any large scale could have begun only in the Neolithic period (about 8500-4000BC) where the necessary preconditions - permanent settlements, an assured food supply, a variety of food-processing techniques - came together.

The university museum was an excellent place to begin looking for chemical evidence of Neolithic wine. Our first breakthrough came in 1996 from the Neolithic village of Hajji Firuz Tepe in the northern Zagros Mountains of Iran. Using infrared spectrometry, liquid chromatography, specific spot tests and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, we showed that at least two jars in a suite of six, dated c.5400-5000BC, contained a wine laced with terebinth tree resin. Analyses of other areas followed. Almost without exception, a tree resin had been used - the winemakers were making retsina, as it is known in Greece today, the only country that perpetuates the tradition. Without any knowledge of bacteriology, the ancient winemaker apparently observed that tree resins might serve as a "medicine" for stopping wine turning to vinegar. They added aromas to the wine. Resin from the terebinth tree was preferred, so much so that Pliny the Elder, the 1st century AD Roman encyclopaedist, calls it the "queen of resins".

Neolithic winemaking was probably born somewhere in the upland regions of the Taurus, Caucasus or Zagros Mountains, where the wild Eurasian grapevine thrives. During this period special winemaking equipment, storage containers and drinking sets start to appear in the archaeological record, implying that a "wine culture" was taking shape and it began to fan out across the region, becoming a major focus of social interactions, religious ceremonies, art and literature, pharmacopoeias, cuisines and economies.

Near Eastern kings were largely responsible for the spread of wine culture.

They celebrated victories with wine-drinking ceremonies and stocked their tombs with the elixir. They also offered wine to the gods. Their conspicuous consumption and gifts of wine and drinking paraphernalia led rulers elsewhere to adopt the wine culture.

Ancient Egypt provides a fascinating example of how the Near Eastern wine culture could take hold. The wild vine did not grow in Egypt, but a thriving industry was established in the Nile Delta by 3000BC. But the pharaohs had to be won over before mass transplantation could occur. Our DNA and chemical analyses of residues inside jars found at the tomb of Scorpion I showed that the jars had been made in the southern Levant, where winemaking had been flourishing for a millennium. DNA analysis is narrowing in on when and where the Eurasian grapevine was first domesticated. More exacting chemical analyses should shed light on the minutiae of ancient winemaking.

Patrick E. McGovern is adjunct associate professor of anthropology, University of Pennsylvania. His book Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture is published this week by Princeton University Press, £18.00.

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