The First Vintage

A molecular archaeologist traces the prehistory of our most celebrated beverage

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There's no question that grapes would have made an attractive target for domestication by our Stone Age ancestors. As food, they are densely packed with sugar and valuable for that reason alone. But in addition, McGovern thinks, ancient people were probably well aware of the fermentation process whereby yeast turns the sugar in grape juice into alcohol. Indeed, wild grapes frequently carry a dusting of yeast on their skins, probably transported by wasps and other flying insects, and will occasionally ferment right on the vine (birds sometimes become so inebriated eating wild grapes that they fall from their perches).

Still, it wasn't until about 10,000 years ago, when people began settling into permanent agricultural communities, that winemaking could turn into an extensive enterprise. Through trial and error, experts speculate, the world's first vintners would have learned to manipulate both the yeast that turns grape juice into wine and the bacteria that turn wine into vinegar. Among the key ingredients in the fight against the latter were aromatic compounds found in certain tree resins. In the 7,500-year-old wine residues McGovern's lab identified in 1996, for example, was the clear chemical signature of resin from the terebinth tree, a type of pistachio that grows throughout the Middle East. Today only the Greeks still drink resinated wine, but the practice could become more widespread if McGovern's interest in re-creating ancient beverages catches on. The reconstructed Phrygian grog was a lovely drink, McGovern dreamily recalls, "with a saffron taste that caught at the back of the throat and drew you back for more."

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