The Historical Cradles of Wine

Some of the world's oldest wine cultures are also among the most overlooked. Take a look at these regions, filled with endless intrigue.
The smallest town in Bulgaria, Melnik, shot from above, capturing the sand pyramids and dramatic sky / Getty

The histories of Western civilization and winemaking are as intertwined as grapevines on a trellis wire. There are competing claims as to where wine was first made, but evidence points to the Middle East, eastern Asia and the Mediterranean Sea as the birthplace of grapes, winemaking and the word, wine, itself.

From grand temples and stone troughs, to shards of pottery and fossilized grape seeds, abundant clues highlight the importance of wine both at the table and in religion. Wine made many appearances in the prose and poetry of the ancient world, from the Phoenicians and Minoans through the Romans and Greeks, and in the religious texts of Jews and Christians alike.

While it’s fascinating to reflect on winemaking and its spread along ancient trade routes, remember that these countries still produce high-quality wines from international and indigenous grapes. Although they’re no longer traded as currency or shipped via wooden boat in clay amphorae, modern bottlings from the birthplace of wine remind us of the cultural significance of wine.

Bulgaria

Women leading mule carts by vineyard in the Gavrailovo district, near Sliven, Bulgaria (East Thracian Valley) / Photo by Mick Rock, Cephas
Women leading mule carts by vineyard in the Gavrailovo district, near Sliven, Bulgaria (East Thracian Valley) / Photo by Mick Rock, Cephas

Archaeological evidence of Bulgaria’s wine history extends as far back as 5,000 years or more. More “recently,” the Cult of Dionysus in ancient Thrace made use of zelus, or sweet black wine, to commune with nature. It’s thought to have been made from wild grapes, sweetened with honey and blended with water. The Greek writer Xenophon recounts a Thracian king in 5th century B.C. who regularly drank wine from animal horns, and archaeological evidence shows that 90 percent of drinking vessels were related to the enjoyment of wine. Other ancient, wine-related finds include coins, figures and effigies with images of grapes and Dionysus.

Local outside a Georgian vineyard / Photo by Marvin Shaouni
Local outside a Georgian vineyard / Photo by Marvin Shaouni

Georgia

In 2013, Georgia’s ancient method of fermenting and aging wine in clay amphorae, called qvevris (sometimes spelled kvevris), was designated a tradition of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. This style of winemaking extends back 7,000 years, while the emblematic red and white grapes of the country, Saperavi and Rkatsiteli, are considered among the oldest still in cultivation. The Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi houses metal artifacts from as early as 3000 B.C. that feature grapes, grapevines and grape leaves. Archaeological digs have unearthed many sarcophagi from the Greco-Roman era inscribed with drinking vessels and wine pitchers.

Historic Winemaking Regions
Chapel and small vineyard at sunset above Mesa Pigadia Bay. Near Akrotiri, Santorini, Cyclades Islands, Greece / Photo by Mick Rock, Cephas
Chapel and small vineyard at sunset above Mesa Pigadia Bay. Near Akrotiri, Santorini, Cyclades Islands, Greece / Photo by Mick Rock, Cephas

Aegean Greece

Winemaking and the wine trade flourished throughout the islands of the Aegean Sea during the heyday of the Minoan civilization, which lasted from around 3600 to 1400 B.C. Tombs on the island of Crete from 5,000 years ago bear images of wine implements, and one of the world’s oldest wine presses was found near the village of Archanes. Artifacts from shipwrecks and on the islands themselves point to a wide trading network across the islands of Chios, Crete, Lemnos, Lesbos and Rhodes. The basket vines in this picture of Santorini are among the oldest in the world. Today, international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grow alongside such lesser-known indigenous grapes as Kotsifali, Liatiko, Mandilaria and Vilana.

Northern Greece

Popova Kula winery in the Republic of Macedonia, wine region Demir Kapija / John Kellerman, Alamy
Popova Kula winery in the Republic of Macedonia, wine region Demir Kapija / John Kellerman, Alamy

Worship of Dionysus, the god of wine, was strongest in the region of Macedonia. Each spring, festivals were held in his honor that coincided with the arrival of leaves on grapevines. This region in northern Greece has cultivated grapes since 4000 B.C., as evidenced by fossilized grape seeds found across the region. By the 8th century B.C., when wine-filled amphorae were shipped throughout the Mediterranean, Homer was writing of the wine made here. The most widely grown grape in Greek Macedonia is Xinomavro, which typically yields a dark and spicy wine.

Two men in a wine barrel rolling competition during the celebration of National Wine Day in The Great National Assembly Square, Chisinau, Moldova / EPA, Alamy
Two men in a wine barrel rolling competition during the celebration of National Wine Day in The Great National Assembly Square, Chisinau, Moldova / EPA, Alamy

Moldova

Fossilized grape seeds found in prehistoric clay pots and fossilized Vitis teutonica leaves demonstrate that wine was made in the modern-day villages of Naslavcia and Vavarovka between 2700 and 3000 B.C. Researchers believe that wine was made for ceremonial purposes; it wasn’t until more than 1,000 years later that Greek colonists popularized home consumption. Subsequent Roman settlers increased production even more, and they exported wine throughout the Roman Empire from the province they called Dacia Romana. Today, Moldova’s exports markets include Europe, North America, and Asia, but locals still celebrate at home with the lively National Wine Day in Chisinau.

The temple of Bacchus at Baalbeck,in the Anti-Lebanon mountain range / Photo by Christian Kober, Alamy
The temple of Bacchus at Baalbeck,in the Anti-Lebanon mountain range / Photo by Christian Kober, Alamy

Lebanon

The well-preserved and imposing Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley (built between A.D. 150–250) is adorned with grapevines and scenes from the life of the Roman god of wine. Winemaking here extends back 5,000 years to the days of the Phoenicians, who were among the first people to cultivate wine grapes. They also exported wine to Rome, Egypt, Greece and Carthage. A tomb said to be that of Noah, most famous for his ark but also the Old Testament’s first winemaker, is located in eastern Lebanon, while Cana, in southern Lebanon, is where Jesus is said to have turned water into wine.

Turkey

Vineyard below Zelve cliff dwellings, near Nevsehir, Cappadocia, Turkey / Photo by Dorothy Burrow, Cephas
Vineyard below Zelve cliff dwellings, near Nevsehir, Cappadocia, Turkey / Photo by Dorothy Burrow, Cephas

Archaeological artifacts show that pre-Hittite populations made wine more than 6,000 years ago in what is now Turkey. The ancient people of Anatolia called wine vino, which has made its way into a few other languages. Grape cultivation in Mesopotamia began on the fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and it continued throughout colonization by subsequent populations. A later population, the Phrygians, are thought to have introduced wine to Greek colonists, and by the 6th century B.C., wine was exported to settlements in what are now Italy and France. Some of the oldest known grape varieties, such as Boğazkere and Öküzgösü, are still grown here.

Kolossi Castle in the city of Limassol on the island of Cyprus / Noel Manchee, Alamy
Kolossi Castle in the city of Limassol on the island of Cyprus / Noel Manchee, Alamy

Cyprus

Cypriot wine culture dates back 5,000 years. From ancient Babylonian writings through Greek poets and the Old Testament, the wine of this large Mediterranean island has been praised through most of recorded history. Fifteen indigenous varieties are widely grown, and the island’s most famed vinous product is sweet Commandaria, popularized in ancient times by the Templar Knights who took up residence here. Favored during the Greek and Roman eras, it received its name in the 12th century, and is the oldest-named wine in the world produced today.

Israel

Vineyard above the Sea of Galilee, Israel / Photo by Jon Millwood, Cephas
Vineyard above the Sea of Galilee, Israel / Photo by Jon Millwood, Cephas

Its location on a trade route between Egypt and Mesopotamia placed ancient Israel at the heart of the winemaking world. The fifth book of the Torah and Old Testament, Deuteronomy, refers to the “fruit of the vine” as one of the seven blessed fruits of Israel, and ruins of 2,000-year-old wineries have been found throughout the country. Although most indigenous grapes are thought to be extinct, a project at Ariel University in the occupied West Bank uncovered a grape called Marawi that can be traced back to the Roman era. Researchers there are using DNA testing to identify other ancient varieties so they can propagate them.

Published on December 16, 2016
Topics: Wine History
About the Author
Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen
Entertaining and Lifestyle Editors

Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen are Wine Enthusiast's Entertaining and Lifestyle Editors. DeSimone tastes wine from Israel and the Mediterranean Basin, while Jenssen tastes wine from Eastern Europe, including the former the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Both co-authored Wines of California, Wines of the Southern Hemisphere, and The Fire Island Cookbook. Wine educators and presenters, both gentlemen serve as frequent guests on national and local television. Email: mikeandjeff@wineenthusiast.net



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