Andrew Jefford talks to Professor Patrick McGovern about Neolithic wine-drinking habits – and more...

The world’s foremost authority on ancient drinking swung through Bordeaux’s handsome Cité du Vin recently, on a mission to tantalize.  More of what I learned from him in a moment.  First, though, a little background.

Patrick McGovern studied undergrad chemistry at Cornell, but took a minor in English literature, too, and was fascinated with ancient history.  This led to a Ph.D in Near Eastern Archaeology and Literature from the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Department of the University of Pennsylvania.  Having begun his career studying pottery and glass colorants of the ancient Near East, he next turned to a celebrated organic substance of the Canaanites and Phoenicians: ‘royal purple’ or Tyrian purple (extracted from the murex shell, and once the most expensive dye in the world). That led him to specialise in ‘ancient organics’ more generally, and in particular the residues left inside pottery fragments and shards.

Archeologists formerly were able to do little more than speculate about what the pots they found contained; indeed, they often briskly cleaned away the residues with sulphuric acid.  The inventions of gas and liquid chromatography changed that.  Now they were able not simply to see and to touch the pot, but to discover what was in it.

Or some of it.  Not alcohol, alas: it evaporates and disappears entirely, like some holy ghost, so McGovern’s first big challenge was to find ‘markers’ for different alcoholic beverages.  For wine, he settled on the presence of tartaric acid in large quantities and other acids in smaller quantities (by comparison with local soils), while alcoholic drinks made by fermenting honey contain beeswax compounds.  Beer is more complicated, in that it can be produced from a wide variety of grains and starches, each of which leaves a different signature.

McGovern’s discoveries during a 40-year career have been fascinating (many of them are summarized in his book Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer and other Alcoholic Beverages).  Here’s one: the ‘pure’ wine we are used to in the modern world was almost unheard of in the distant past.  Wine as such was almost always flavoured with resin, herbs, roots, flowers, even sea water, for medicinal or aesthetic reasons.  Not only that, but our distant forbears thought nothing of mixing together different drinks: wine, mead and beer, for example.

“The University of Pennsylvania had investigated what was called the Midas Tumulus in Anatolia in the 1950s,” recalled McGovern.  “It was either the burial place of King Midas or of his father Gordias.  It contained the largest iron-age drinking set ever found, and inside that were the residues of the funerary feast; they’d been brought back to the University of Pennsylvania in bags.  Thirty years later, I was able to examine them.  We found out that it was a very complicated mixture of grape, barley beer and honey mead.”  This excavation was dated to 740-700 BC – but the story was a similar one at a much, much older Chinese site, that of Jiahu in Henan Province (7,000 BC – 6,600 BC), where rice beer had been mixed with fermented honey, grape must and hawthorn.  “It seems that mostly in ancient times human beings did mix together different sugar sources to get higher alcohol.”

Inadvertently, McGovern’s work on recreating some of these ancient brews with Sam Calagione of the Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware helped spark the ‘extreme beverage’ movement in the USA, where flavourings and fusions are the norm and where no combination is ever too outlandish.  British drinkers knocking back ‘Black Velvet’ (Guinness with Champagne) are truer to our drinking roots than those who sniff at the very idea.

patrick mcgovern, ancient wine

Professor Patrick McGovern inspects wild vines along the river Tigris. Credit: Andrew Jefford.

The reason for McGovern’s recent trip to the Cité du Vin was that it had chosen to feature Georgia for its first ever Guest Wine Region, precisely because of the astonishing antiquity and complexity of its wine culture.  The centre is currently displaying an impressive exhibition of items, some of which had left Georgia for the first time – and one of the major projects in which McGovern has been recently involved has been in Georgia.

Globally speaking, the key zone for early wine research is the land which lies between the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean: two of McGovern’s previous grape wine finds, for example, had come from the excavations at Godin Tepe (in the Zagros mountains in north-western Iran – 3,400 BC to 3,000 BC) and at Hajji Firuz Tepe (further north in Iran, close to Lake Urmia — 5,400-5,000 BC).  The latest Georgian project will, it is hoped, set the clock back further and more precisely.  But how far?  And will the analysis of Georgia’s ‘ancient organics’ reveal a location where, for once, the local drinkers weren’t busy mixing and fermenting anything and everything they could get their hands on, but were content to make and to drink pure grape wine alone?

The professor, frustratingly for those of us present at his lecture, turned sphinx-like at this point.  The rigour imposed by imminent publication of the project’s results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA  meant that he couldn’t yet reveal the results, and especially not to the prattling press.  I did, though, notice that the Georgians present were looking chipper.  Watch out for news in due course.

patrick mcgovern, world's oldest wine

Professor Patrick McGovern speak in Bordeaux about his research into the world’s oldest wines. Credit: Andrew Jefford

Afterwards, I asked McGovern for a little more context.  “We’ve been working on this project for the last three years.  Georgia obviously has a very long tradition, and the project has been multi-disciplinary, with an excavation aspect to it.  We’ve re-excavated sites at Shulaveris Gora and Gadachrili Gora, taking much more care with the samples than was formerly possible.  The result is some of the earliest pottery in the world; it comes from the right area; it has all the right climatic conditions; it’s the world centre of the grape vine; it’s positioned very well to have some of the earliest winemaking.  But you also have to consider the surrounding areas.  There were developments in eastern Turkey; Iran is very poorly explored; the true wild vine still grows in Lebanon but it hasn’t been sampled properly; humans would first have discovered the vine when they came north out of Africa in Palestine and Lebanon.  We’re really just trying to work out where the first domestication occurred, and Georgia is right in the centre of it all.”

Come on, Patrick: will be we ever be able to say that somewhere (somewhere like Georgia, say) truly was ‘the birthplace of wine’?  “Maybe.  Especially if DNA analysis becomes more exacting.  If we could locate material containing genes for sex, colour, amount of sugar, thinness of skin and so on, and back it up by radiocarbon dating, then that really would be a strong argument for domestication in just that one place.”

Two final perspectives.  Every archaeologist knows that only that which has been found can be analysed – and the key finds may as yet be unfound, so no account is ever definitive.  In this respect, McGovern is at pains to stress the unique antiquity of Chinese culture.  “Maybe archeological investigation will eventually show that China did domesticate at a much earlier date, because they are earlier in many other areas.  Much of the pottery from the Middle East is around 6,000 BC; in China it’s 16,000 BC.  So they have a 10,000-year edge on the Middle East, which is supposedly ‘the cradle of civilisation’.  That was a great shock to me when I first went to China.”

McGovern also points out how rare it is to investigate ‘ancient organics’ and not find traces of alcohol.  Only the native American and Australian peoples seem not to have used alcohol at all – but, thinks McGovern, they must have stumbled on it via fermented honey or squashed fruits at some point; wild fermentation is hard to avoid.  “Maybe there was some sort of mini-prohibition movement; maybe the gods told them to leave it alone.  Native Americans had tobacco, so perhaps they decided that was sufficient.”

These, he stresses, are the exceptions.  “I think there is a really strong argument to be made that alcoholic beverages have always been important to humans.  You need food to exist.  But if you want to have a good time, if you want to have something safer than water to drink, if you want to have something to take medicine in and so live longer, if you want social lubrication, if you want a nice sleep, if you want to up your sexual relations and produce more children, then alcoholic beverages help.  Then you get into the mind-altering effect, more or less having a mystery of sorts in that there seems to be some supernatural force at work both in fermentation and in your brain.  You can relate that to some meaning in the universe, and that’s why alcoholic beverages are usually incorporated right at the centre of all religions.”  Rather than being some sort of cultural exclusivity of ‘the western world’, look far enough back and the tender use of alcohol to ease the bitterness of life may be what unites us all.

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