Seven fascinating historical wine discoveries
Mankind has been drinking wine for thousands of years, so it’s no surprise history bears dozens upon dozens of fascinating wine-related discoveries made by intrepid explorers – both intentional and otherwise! Here are some of the most curious to date.
1) The Stone Age village
The oldest evidence of wine-making was discovered in 2017, by archaeologists excavating two Stone Age villages in Georgia. Here, they found 8,000-year old jars containing what they believe are traces of grape wine. One jar was even decorated with what the researchers suspect might represent a cluster of grapes. Why is this such an important discovery, beyond the fact that it’s the oldest evidence of wine-making? Historians tend to agree that the Neolithic period was a constant struggle for survival, but wine fermentation isn’t a survival necessary. This suggests that people back then had the resources to enjoy themselves beyond simply staying alive.
2) The grave-filled cavern
The world’s oldest large-scale winery was discovered decades ago in Armenia, with researchers dating it back to 4,100 BC. Modern excavations began in 2007 and revealed an extensive wine-making setup, including a grape-treading trough, 15-gallon ceramic vats and storage jars, as well as remains of crushed grapes, seeds and vine leaves. The site lies adjacent to a cavern filled with dozens of graves, leading archaeologists to speculate that the wine produced there played an important role in religious ceremonies.
3) The Tombs of Egyptian Kings
Jars encrusted with wine residue have been found in the tombs of both King Scorpion I (3,100 BC) and Tutankhamun (1,300 BC). While King Scorpion’s tomb contained around 300 jars of wine made with clay from Palestine – suggesting the wine had been imported from hundreds of miles away – King Tutankhamun’s 26 jars are deemed to have come from nearby, since domestic cultivation for wine production in Egypt began around his time. This discovery also provides some of the earliest examples of cellar labelling, as King Tut’s jars featured descriptions such as “Year four. Wine of very good quality of the House-of-Aton of the Western River. Chief vintner Khay”.
4) The Mediterranean shipwrecks
Nowadays, bulk wine is often transported around the world in giant plastic bags within specialised holds on container ships, but the Roman way of getting things around wasn’t wildly different. Around 2,000 years ago, Romans would use large ceramic containers, known as dolia, to transport goods in the holds of ships. Inevitably, many of these ships would run into trouble while at sea, and their contents would be lost. One notable shipwreck was The Diano Marina, discovered near Italy, which was carrying the equivalent of nearly 50,000 bottles of wine. Meanwhile, La Giraglia near Corsica was a purpose-built wine-carrying ship, with at least eight dolia built into its hold.
5) The Speyer wine bottle
For archaeologists, the evidence of wine usually encompasses traces of residue or relevant wine-making equipment. Very old bottles containing actual wine are few and far between. However, the oldest such discovery, made in 1867 in the German town of Speyer, involves a bottle of liquid wine dating back to around 350 AD. The bottle was unearthed during the excavation of a Roman tomb of two sarcophagi which had been buried with 16 glass vessels of wine. All but one, the so-called Speyer bottle, was empty. What makes this discovery even more curious is that the 1.5 litre glass bottle would have been rare at the time, as Romans tended to use stronger ceramic vessels to hold and carry wine.
6) The Czech castle
In the 1985 Czech authorities discovered an extensive wine collection stashed beneath the floorboards of a medieval Czech monastery. The collection, dating back 150 years, had survived Nazi rule, cold war espionage and numerous American fortune hunters, and was recently valued at nearly £850,000. Historians believe the 133 bottles of wine belonged to the wealthy Beaufort-Spontin family, who lived at Becov Castle, and who fled to Belgium after the war ended, accused of being Nazi sympathisers. Before escaping, the family hid the wine under the floor of the chapel in the hopes of one day returning for their collection. Alas, authorities discovered the wine before they could ever return.
7) The secret Prohibition-era cellar
Last year, preservationists from the Liberty Hall Museum in New Jersey unearthed one of the oldest and largest collections of colonial-era Madeira ever found in the United States. Discovered behind a prohibition-era wall in the museum’s historic building, the collection comprised three crates of 12 bottles, and 42 demijohns – vases used to hold and transport alcohol. Notably, the researchers stumbled upon several cases of wine from 1796, believed to have been shipped over to celebrate John Adam’s presidency. Founding fathers including Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin were reportedly big fans of the wine, and just 100-150 bottles of 18th-century Madeira are estimated to remain in existence today.