Tag Archives: Wine

Areni Winemaking – Ancient and Modern

Last year I had the pleasure of visiting the Areni-1 cave in southern Armenia.  Many unique and noteworthy artifacts have been found in the cave, including leather shoes; fine linen fabric, woven reed mats, and pottery vessels of different styles and periods.  In addition, preserved within the cave is also the site of the world’s oldest known winery.  When the archaeologists studying the site announced this in 2012, I knew I just had to see it for myself.

Mouth of cave Areni-1

Mouth of cave Areni-1

The cave is situated overlooking a winding road that slips through a valley along the edge of the Arpa River.  Small cafes and vendors dot the roadside.  We pulled into one of the cafes that had grapevine canopies over tables that straddled side branches of the river.  I thought we were just stopping for lunch, but when I looked up, we were also right at the base of the cliff where the Areni-1 cave was located.

The earthen path to the cave was well worn, but very steep and without steps or rail, so it was a bit of a trudge get to the mouth of the cave.  It was also a hot, late spring day, and the sun, although welcome after several days of clouds and showers, beat down on us as we climbed. As we neared the mouth of the cave, a dog ran by us at breakneck speed, making me wish for a few less years on my own personal pedometer.

The view into the valley from the cave mouth is spectacular.  The hills across the access road are low and one can see for many miles to the north.  Presuming a similar lay of the land in the recent past, the cave would have provided excellent protection for occupants and as well as the ability to see animals or people headed their way at a distance.  It was the ultimate early room with a view.

Areni-1 Main Occupation Area

Areni-1 Main Occupation Area

Just to the left of the cave mouth is the main occupation area. Although the cave was inhabited on and off from the Neolithic to the late Middles Ages, the bulk of the habitation was in the Chalcolithic or Copper Age in the late 5th to early 4th millennium BCE. This area has yielded hearths, grindstones, clay storage bins, and numerous goat and sheep bones (mostly goat). In addition to their provenance, the bones themselves show signs of processing for harvesting meat and marrow as well as cooking, indicating that cave occupants were eating animals on site and probably living in proximity to them as well. Areni’s famous leather shoes were found in this area. Also found here were obsidian and chert tools. The obsidian is interesting because there are no deposits of it in the Arpa valley within 20 kilometers of the cave, indicating that cave inhabitants were either getting it themselves at a greater distance, or trading with others who had ready access to the material.

When I was in college I worked for a summer at the Tautavel caves in southern France.  The material used for some of the tools at that Neanderthal site came from several hundred miles away.  So trade at a distance for Areni’s much more modern inhabitants is no surprise. It is important to remember, however, when considering the flow of information, such as that concerning the domestication of plants or ways of processing them for food and drink, or for the ability to trade wine, say for obsidian, perhaps?

Although the cave has electricity, the day we visited, it was out. In fact, we were told it was on before our climb, but it seemed to fail especially for our visit. I don’t know how many of you are spelunkers, but as you enter a cave, the light falls off rapidly. Just a handful of feet inside the mouth of the cave and we were in near darkness that became pitch as we made our way deeper inside. Someone had a half-dead flashlight with them, and that was the only light we had to guide us. The photos in this post are a credit to my trusty Nikon and its ability capture and amplify light, because it was impossible to see a few inches beyond the weak torchlight with the unaided eye.

Areni-1 Wine Production Area

Areni-1 Wine Production Area

To the left, in the darkness of the cave, was the main wine processing area. This area has a shallow clay tub, the center of which is occupied by the mouth of a large jar. Archaeologists think that this basin was for the pressing of grapes or berries, and that the pressed juice flowed into the mouth of the large jar. This interpretation is bolstered by the discovery of desiccated grapes, grape seeds and skins still attached to pedicels, and even grape stems in close proximity to these jars. Morphological examination of the Copper-Age grape remains found here suggest that they are an intermediary between wild and domestic fruits, so it is possible that grape domestication was in process at Areni-1. The presence of large storage jars around the pressing installation may even indicate that secondary fermentation took place there. Plastering of jar mouths would have created an airlock, protecting the wine from oxidation. Carbon-14 dating of the grapes in this area places them between 4223 – 3790 BCE, making this the oldest wine-producing assemblage yet discovered. There are older jars with sediments that have been identified as wine known from Georgia and Iran, which indicates the consumption of wine in those places, but Armenia has the claim as oldest site for wine making.

In addition to grapes, the remains of many other fruits, drupes, and nuts were found in the cave, including plums, pears, hackberries, silverberries, almonds and walnuts. These could have been for consumption as food items, or some of them (notably plums and pears) could have been used in the production of mixed-fruit wines. The presence of the walnuts are also notable because there is very little data on when humans started to domesticate (purposely plant and harvest nuts) from these trees. Areni-1 offers remains and a firm range of dates when inhabitants were eating these in the Caucasus. Charred grains such as emmer, early wheat (Triticum cf. aestivum), naked and hulled barley, lentils, and grass peas were also found in the cave.

Areni-1 One of the areas where human remains were recovered.

Areni-1 One of the areas where human remains were recovered.

We trudged on slowly towards the rear of the cave, feeling more than seeing our way forward towards an area where the skulls of three sub-adult human skulls were found sealed into large pottery jars. One of the skulls had well preserved brain tissue within. Also around this area, several adult leg and arm bones with evidence of carnivore chewing (probably a dog) were also found. All of the human remains predate the winemaking by several hundred years. Beyond the fact that their heads were severed from their bodies, archaeologists do not know how to interpret these remains. They are being called, “burials,” but it is not clear whether these tweens and teens were sacrificed, or whether they died from natural causes and their heads interred in ritual remembrance. The largest skull has evidence of new bone formation on the inside of the skull, but no evidence of fracture or deliberate penetration into the cranial cavity. This suggests an inflammatory response to an infection as can occur in the encephalidities, meningitis, and osteomyelitis. However, because the adult long bones were chewed by a dog, and some of them were found sealed in pots, I suspect that these kids may have been victims of rabies. We know that rabies was a problem in the Old Babylonian Period of ancient Mesopotamia because 

 
  Although Areni-1 is much older than the earliest known evidence of rabies in Mesopotamia, It is not too far flung to imagine that these kids died after an infectious bite from a rabid animal.  Whatever the cause of death, my money is on ritual remembrance of these children, not sacrifice or ritual cannibalism as some have suggested.

Tasting Table at the Areni Wine Factory

Tasting Table at the Areni Wine Factory

As we made our way out of the cave, the return of the light felt like emerging from the world of the past represented in the artifacts and assemblages.  I imagined the sounds of people chatting while they worked, animals bleating, some meat cooking on the hearth, and people making and tasting the old Areni-1 vintages.  Imagination is a powerful thing, because not two minutes by Jeep from the base of the cave is the Areni Wine Factory.  Despite its Soviet-sounding name, the wines they make are good and the people who make it are knowledgeable about their wines and wine culture beyond their borders.  That day, they were tasting some mixed fruit wines.  I sampled the grape-cherry and grape pomegranate both of which were very good.  A quick tour of the cellar ended the day and we got back in the Jeep to find some beds for the night.  As we drove, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the coincidence of modern winery so near to the world’s oldest known winery, and wondered how similar (or how different) the people of the Arap Valley are to those who lived in Areni-1.

(Words and photographs by Laura Kelley.  Recording of rabies Incantation borrowed from the London SOAS website).

Culinary History Mystery # 5: A Loaf of Leavened Mesopotamian Bread

Something wonderful and unexpected happened yesterday. After a long day of tromping around historical archaeology sites in St. Mary’s City with the family, I arrived home to find a long-expected, but immediately unanticipated e-mail from a fellow food lover in England. Cid is a purveyor of fine foods and an expert breadmaker. Some time ago, I asked her to help me solve a historical food puzzle that has been vexing me for some time. Namely, did the Mesopotamians enjoy leavened as well as unleavened bread?

Because we are lacking explicit evidence for the use of yeast to leaven bread in Mesopotamia and many other ancient cultures, modern cooks reconstructing the cuisines of these cultures have assumed that all of the bread in these cultures was flat and dense like hardtack. An unfortunate assumption.

What Cid has beautifully demonstrated is that spelt, which is not too dissimilar to the emmer wheat used by Mesopotamians, makes a great big loaf of sourdough bread using a starter based only on wild yeast from the environment.

For those of you new to the “starter” concept, it is simply that a grain providing a carbohydrate source is mixed with water and allowed to attract microorganisms from the environment.  As the microorganisms consume the food given them by the flour (carbohydrate and sugar) they reproduce and must be “fed” with the addition of new flour (and sometimes water).  Sometimes an additional sugar source is added by soaking macerated fruit in the water to be mixed with the flour to start the starter culture more rapidly.  This process continues until a stable community of yeast and bacteria is established in the liquid or semi-solid “starter”.  This starter is added to flour, water and other ingredients, kneaded, folded, proofed and baked and sourdough bread results.

The importance of Cid’s demonstration is that even if the ancients didin’t explicitly know and write about yeast as an ingredient, they might have known how to use the wild type organism.  Cid’s talents as a baker show that wild-yeast leavened breads were possible in the ancient world.  She writes:

“For the past few weeks I’ve been feeding a spelt ferment starter with organic spelt flour every day. Next to my other ‘white’ ferments the spelt had a different smell and didn’t bubble up as quickly.

Wild Yeast Spelt Starter

It’s not clear whether the ancient bakers used a ‘poolish’ method for their bread, which is basically an amount of starter ferment mixed with water and flour left to further ferment over night before adding more flour the next day. It seemed like a reasonable idea so that’s what I did. It bubbled well enough to make me believe it would produce a good loaf. So at breakfast the following day I mixed in enough spelt flour and two teaspoons of salt and about a tablespoon of olive oil.

The feel of the dough was very different to the normal sourdoughs I make on a weekly basis. Despite kneading and resting, the dough never felt elastic and rose only slightly. You see, the gluten in modern wheat flour produces stretchy dough that rises well and if ‘folded’ at regular intervals rather than kneaded, will give the crumb its familiar large holes and crackling crust.

Unbaked Spelt Sourdough

As I got the dough properly formed up into a loaf, I fired up my oven to 240°C with baking stone in place.

As you can see the baked loaf is rather flat and dark looking. It’s consistency is much more like a scone than modern day brown bread and it has a sour tang. The texture is too heavy for my taste and the ferment too sour. A portion of this type of bread would be very filling and full of natural fibre.

A lighter texture could possibly have been achieved by mixing the spelt with other grains known to Mesopotamians, such as rye, oats or the numerous wild grasses they incorporated into their diets. Sieving the milled grain would have given a whiter, presumably lighter weight end result as well.”

Wild Yeast Spelt Loaf

Wonderful work, Cid! Your demonstration is not only proof of concept that these ancients could have enjoyed leavened wild-yeast sourdough breads, but it is also significant for understanding ancient beermaking and winemaking as well. Many of the people and companies who have tried to reconstruct these recipes have been left wondering how to ferment the grain and malt mixtures that have been described on the ancient tablets. Your wild yeast spelt starter gives them an excellent way to introduce yeast into the alcohol mixture. The ancients may not have known what yeast was, but I’m betting they knew how to cultivate and use it for bread and alcohol production. (To beer makers out there – lets talk about that aromatic “wort” a bit – I may have some ideas on that score as well.)

Another thing that is important to the flavor of bread, beer and wine is that wild yeast starters are complex cultures of local yeasts not the uniform commercial cultures of Sacccharomyces cerviseae one can buy in the market. Additionally, these starters all have complex communities of local bacteria in them. The difference between species and community diversity in commercial versus wild starters affects proofing time, texture and flavor of the products made.

If any of you start experimenting with spelt (or farro which is emmer wheat used by the Mesopotamians), I suggest you consider flavoring your loaves with spices to balance the strong flavor of the spelt or farro. Some spices that are authentic to Mesopotamian bread can be found in the Ninda-gal recipe (JCS Vol. 29, No. 3) are onion seeds, sumac and saffron. You could also troll some of the Mesopotamian recipes on Silk Road Gourmet for some other spice combinations as well. (Words by Laura Kelley and Cid, and Photographs of Wild Yeast Spelt Starter, Unbaked Sourdough and Leavened Spelt Loaf by Cid).

Midday at the Oasis

Decorated Door in Turpan

Imagine yourself in a lush trellised garden of grape vines and mulberry trees. A brook babbles nearby and a light breeze filters through your leafy bower. Birds flit amongst the vines and provide music for your sojourn. You recline on a woven silk carpet of red and white that covers long wooden benches painted bright turquoise blue. Perhaps you sample the abundant local fruits and raisins while sipping locally produced wine. After a few hours of such pleasure, you have forgotten the harsh conditions that you travelled through to get here. After a few days you will once again be moving through the great sandy sea that surrounds this place. . . .

For some travelers along the Silk Road wanting to trade the unsurvivable Taklimakan desert for the inhospitable Gobi, this scene played out thousands of years ago. For me, it was last month during my visit to Turpan, China.

In April, the temperatures at nearby Flaming Mountain – the hottest place in China – topped 50 degrees centigrade. The extreme temperatures (which rise as high as 83°C) occur here because of the high iron content of the mountain and surrounding soil eroded from its great flanks, low elevation (500 feet below sea level) and in most places beyond Turpan, little to no ground cover. What is now desert was a little more fertile in the hey-day of the Silk Road, but still, the area beyond the Turpan oasis was a harsh place.

Flaming Mountain

The incredible fertility of the oases is made possible by a series of underground canals and surface wells called a Karez. Karez is a Persian irrigation system that was invented in the 1st millennium BCE and spread throughout desert countries or regions in the following centuries. Turpan’s Karez was constructed during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 24 CE), and is still in partial use today. In Turpan, it is fed by groundwater and by melting snow from Tian Shan mountains. According to a UNESCO study of Iraqi Karez, a single Karez can sustain 9000 people and provide water for 200 hectares of cropland.

Vines and Benches in Turpan’s Grape Valley

In Turpan and surrounding areas this means two things: grapes and corn. Other crops produced from irrigated lands in the region include melons, pears, and apricots, but grapes and corn are by far the most important agricultural products. Translating this to the table, Turpan is awash in a wide variety of sweet raisins and wine. As a Uyghur city, the raisins are enjoyed by everyone and the wine is for tourists and for the burgeoning Han population that is increasing in leaps and bounds as Xingjian province develops.

Interestingly, grapeleaves and cornstalks (supplemented with salt and sugar) also form the basis for much of the animal fodder in Turpan, and yes, the taste of the grapeleaves comes through in the tender, sweet mutton enjoyed in the area – the best pastorally derived meat I have ever tasted. Also, according to Muslim and Uyghur practice, lambs are not slaughtered too young, so by far, most of the meat eaten is from adult animals.

Grapes and Raisins

Turpan Grapes by Don Croner

I visited Turpan in the Spring, so the vines were just leafing out and climbing their frames from their long winter rest. Still they provided rare shade from the onslaught of the midday sun. The winter climate is so severe in Xinjiang that the vines are dug under and covered each autumn to protect them from the temperatures which can fall as low as -20°C and are accompanied by biting winds. The hot dry climate in the summer, however, provides a taste advantage when towards the end of the growing season irrigation is decreased and the sugars are allowed to set in the grapes.

There are over 50 kinds of grapes native to Xinjiang and several hundred more that have been introduced in recent decades. Of the native varieties, Turpan Seedless White is prized for its sweet flavor, color and fragrance. The Mare’s Teat is another variety that is large, sweet and succulent, and the sweet yet slightly tart Suosuo variety are small purple, seedless grapes – that resemble champagne grapes – between the size of a large peppercorn and a caper. These last raisins are an important ingredient in Uyghur medicines and are said to be good treatment for everything from measles in children to intestinal upsets in adults, blood disorders and qi problems. Because of these myriad medicinal uses, they are much more expensive than ordinary grapes or raisins.

Drying Raisins in a Qunje

Some grapes are harvested as early as July and some last on the vine until autumn. Grape growers store some of their grapes in cellars or storehouses so as to have fresh fruit during the winter and spring months, but even more grapes are dried for raisins. Grapes are dried in mud-brick buildings – checkered with holes to allow circulation of air – called qunje in Uyghur. The grapes are left in the qunje for thirty or forty days, by which time they have turned into full, succulent sweet raisins which still retain the color and luster of fresh grapes. Sometimes, the grapes are allowed to dry for a few days in the sun before being hung in the qunje to make a sweeter variety of raisin.

I sampled seven different types of raisins while I was in Turpan. In general, the lighter colored raisins – white and green were more sweet than the darker reddish varieties. Most were seedless, but a few had noticeable seeds. They were all sweet and delicious, but the seeded varieties seemed to have the most complex flavors – being tart and sweet at the same time.

Wine

Xinjiang Wines

After sampling several wines from Xinjiang and Gansu, I found all of the wines were clean and fresh. They are light to medium-bodied, and have a short to medium length finish. On the downside, they are thin on the palate with very little concentration or intensity, and next to no complexity. They are good, but at this point, by western standards, they are not great. However, they please the domestic market and have done so for the better part of two millennia so far. Whether they will ever become wines that sell on the international market remains to be seen. The Chinese are interested in developing wine tourism and an internationally marketable wine industry, and are taking steps to do so. When I was in Turpan, they had just had a consortium of Napa Valley winemakers visiting for consultation.

As we were leaving Grape Valley a spring Sandstorm sprung up and blew down several fully grown poplar trees lining the avenue to the oasis.  Despite the storm we kept on travelling south and west to make my train.  As the storm stopped we were far away from the lush valley and as I looked back I could see no trace of the green vines promising an abundant harvest that I had enjoyed only a few hours ago.  Was it perhaps just a mirage? (Words by Laura Kelley.  Photos of Decorated Door in Turpan, Flaming Mountain, and Vines and Benches in Turfan by Laura Kelley. Photo of Turpan Grapes by DonCroner, Photo of Drying Raisins in a Qunje and Xinjiang Wines from Wikimedia.)

Amphorae for Sage, Rosemary and Thyme – Not Wine!

Greek Amphora – 3rd Century BCE

With the help of DNA analysis, scientists are getting a present-day look at centuries-old trade in the Mediterranean. Such studies may help debunk some long-held assumptions, namely that the bulk of Greek commerce revolved around wine.

During the fifth through third centuries B.C., the Mediterranean and Black seas were major thoroughfares for ships loaded with thousands of amphorae, thought from their shape to contain wine. But only recently have researchers peered through the lens of 21st century genetics to identify the actual remnants of the jars’ long-disappeared cargo.

Analyses of DNA fragments from the interior of nine jars from Mediterranean shipwrecks now reveal various combinations of olive, grape, Lamiaceae herbs (mint, rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage), juniper, and terebinth/mastic (genus Pistacia). General DNA targeting analyses also reveal the presence of pine (Pinus), and DNA from Fabaceae (Legume family); Zingiberaceae (Ginger family); and Juglandaceae (Walnut family).

The findings, reported in an upcoming Journal of Archaeological Science (Volume 39, Issue 2, February 2012, Pages 389-398), suggest that the ancient Greeks produced and traded a wide range of foods. The economy of the time was much more sophisticated than previously thought, says Brendan Foley, an archaeologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who coauthored the work with biologist Maria Hansson of Lund University in Sweden and colleagues at the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism.  Some samples already await analysis and further studies are planned.

With this new information, scientists could reconstruct a more accurate picture of the crops being grown and the products changing hands when the world’s first complex economies were getting under way, possibly gaining clues to the agriculture, technologies, art and geopolitics that played into daily life. (Words by Laura kelley; Photo borrowed from Ancienttouch.com)

Silk Road in the News #5: Viva Vitis vinifera – the Earliest Winery

The earliest winery has been uncovered in a cave in the mountains of Armenia.

A vat to press the grapes, fermentation jars and even a cup and drinking bowl dating to about 6,000 years ago were discovered in a cave complex near Areni, Armenia by an international team of researchers.

They also found grape seeds, remains of pressed grapes and dozens of dried vines. The seeds were from the same type of grapes — Vitis vinifera vinifera — still used to make wine.

6,000 Year-old Wine Press from Areni, Armenia

Analyses of pottery sherds and vessels have provided evidence for wine consumption in the region as early as 8,000 years ago in Shulaveri, Georgia and 7,000 years ago in Hajji Firuz Tepe, a Neolithic village in northern Iran. Although significantly later than the Georgian or Iranian sites, the recent Armenian find is hard evidence of a well-developed viticulture.

Materials for winemaking have also been found at Titris Höyük in southeastern Turkey dated to the late third millennium BCE, and grape seeds and spent skins have been found in Greece dating to about 6,500 years ago. The Greek find is particularly intriguing, because figs were found along with the grapes, suggesting perhaps that a mixed fruit wine was being produced.

Wine residue has also been found in Egypt dating to about 5,000 years ago in the tomb of King Scorpion I. Interestingly, however, the wine was found inside imported ceramic jars, indicating perhaps that a broad regional trade in wine was already underway.

Archaeological evidence of winemaking in China is significantly later that that in Western Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean and comes from the Shang Dynasty about 3,000 year ago. Like the Greeks, however, some of the Chinese finds have the remains from several different types of fruits on site (peach, plum and jujube) suggesting either, mixed fruit wine or wines produced from fruits other than grapes – like the pomegranate or plum wines enjoyed today.

The more we seek, the more we find. Makes me wonder what other wonders await. . .

(Words by Laura Kelley, Photo by Gregory Areshian/Associated Press)