One of the reasons I went to the Caucasus – and Georgia in particular – was because of the claims wine was ‘invented’ there in 6000 BCE, or 8000 years ago, give or take a few centuries. The Washington Post, National Geographic, The Daily Mail, the BBC, CNN, The New York Times and the ABC all ran fairly recent stories bruiting the news of radio-carbon dating of pot shards and bio-molecular and DNA archaeology of grape pips from the Stone Age accurately dating wine making to that period in Georgia.
Alvin Toffler in his seminal book The Third Wave claimed that humanity advanced in sudden ‘waves’ or periods of intense adaptation and progress. The third wave was the technological and communications one which swept the world within the last century. The second was the Industrial Revolution but the first – and probably the most important wave – was the adaption of farming and the domestication of animals by our Neolithic Stone Age ancestors. Without this first wave, Toffler claimed, nothing else could have been achieved, which brings me back to wine.
To my mind, there is no question that wine was ever invented. Just as no one can claim the invention of the wheel or the discoverer of fire, similarly, no one can claim to have invented wine. Nevertheless, legends lay easy claim to the latter. Noah, after he landed the ark on Mt. Ararat (on the borders of modern day Turkey and Armenia) disembarked the animals and planted a vineyard after which he got horribly drunk and made a disgrace of himself. All of which begs the question of where he originally came from because he must have brought the vine shoots or saplings with him in the ark! Then there is the much older Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh which also details a deluge after which the eponymous hero sets out on a quest to discover wine and the immortality it can bestow. Another Persian legend describes how Jamshyd – a semi-mythical king – kept grapes to be eaten in jars. One of his handmaids, out of temper with the king and his court, attempted to top herself by drinking the juice from the foaming grapes in one jar, believing it to be poison. Instead she discovered the delights of alcoholic inebriation which she then passed on to the king who, according to the XVII Rubaiyát of Omar Khayyam (The Fitzgerald Translation 1859)
‘They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
the courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep
It must have been a joyous discovery when the first Neolithic farmers found that the grapes, hoarded for leaner times, had fermented and changed magically into a drink other than the contaminated and disease ridden water that they had been dependent upon all their lives.
Three factors independently appeared, more or less at the same time, that all combined to give us the wine that we know today. Firstly the widespread presence of vitis vinifera, the wild Eurasian grape vine in the valleys between the greater and lesser Caucasus mountains, secondly the cultivation of barley and wheat which allowed food reserves to be stored, and thirdly the invention of pottery for making and storing wine.
But back to Georgia where the most astonishing thing is that wine is still made in the same way that our prehistoric ancestors made it.
First the grapes are crushed – sometimes in large, hollowed out logs – before the juice, the skins, the grape pips and even the stalks are poured into qvevri, large earthenware jars, (several hundred to thousands of litres in size) often lined with beeswax, which are then buried in the ground. The juice ferments using wild yeast while the ground maintains a steady geothermal temperature and the conical shape of the qvevri allows the wine to circulate and clarify naturally.
These qvevri wines – also known as ‘natural’ or ‘raw’ or unfiltered wines – have a distinct orange or amber coloured hue due to the skin contact during fermentation and taste quite different to European wines which are fermented without the pulp. Nevertheless, qvevri wines can differ in style with both sweet, semi sweet and dry wine all being made from the Saparavi grape.
Wine is such an integral part of Georgian life that wine is made by just about every family as grape vines are ubiquitous throughout the country. Roughly 500 of the world’s 2000 grape varieties hail from Georgia although less than 20 varieties are used in wine making.
Kakheti, in the eastern part of the country is probably the most famous wine producing area in the country and that is where I went to sample the Saparavi dry red and the white Tsinandali in the town of Sighnaghi.
Under the Soviet rule, the Russian taste was for strong, sweet wine with extra sugar added which led to a decline in quality but since Georgia’s independence in 1991, wine makers have upped their game and while still producing wine in the traditional qvevri fashion, now also produce high quality wines in the western style.
The Story of Wine – Hugh Johnson New Illustrated Edition 2002
A History of the World in 6 Glasses – Tom Standage 2005
Uncorking the Caucasus – Dr. Matthew Horkey & Charine Tan 2016