Where Does Wine Really Come From?

Europe was relatively late to the game when it comes to winemaking, and the original inventors of our favorite fermented beverage are staging a comeback.
The monastery Khor Virap and surrounding vineyard, near the Turkey/Armenia border, with Mount Ararat in the background / Getty

When you think of wine, most likely what comes to mind are powerhouse regions like Bordeaux, Napa or Champagne. Or, grapes like Pinot Noir, Malbec, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon.

But a growing group of winemakers in the Middle East, Western Asia and Eastern Europe are eager to remind they represent the oldest wine-producing regions in the world, and that they’re making wines like nowhere else on earth.

At a recent event hosted by Smithsonian Associates in Washington, DC, winemakers and wine historians examined who could in fact claim to be the original creators of wine. While it’s hard to pinpoint where the first fermented grape beverage was made, researchers traced the origins of domesticated grapes to an area around the headwaters of the Tigris River in Turkey.

Dr. Patrick McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, has traveled the region extensively looking for an answer.

Inside the first known winery, "Areni-1," in Armenia, where the oldest evidence to date of wine presses and fermentation vessels were found, along with early vinifera seeds / Photo courtesy Gregory Areshian, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
Inside the first known winery, “Areni-1,” in Armenia, where the oldest evidence to date of wine presses and fermentation vessels were found, along with early vinifera seeds / Photo courtesy Gregory Areshian, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

Known as “The Indiana Jones of Alcohol,” McGovern found what he believes to be the grapes that form the basis of modern winemaking.

Wild grapevines, like many plants, come in male and female varieties. They require pollination between plants in order to bear fruit. But near the churning headwaters of the Tigris, McGovern and Dr. José Vouillamoz, a Swiss grape geneticist, found a natural mutation—hermaphroditic vines that could self-pollinate and had stronger fruit yields.

They believe these plants were used to propagate the earliest domesticated grapevines. These became the basis of the wine we drink today.

Trade spread these early wines along the Mediterranean into Greece, Italy, France and other modern wine-producing regions. Evidence shows that it wasn’t until 600 B.C. or so that the Etruscans shipped their first wine in amphorae containers to France.

So what happened?

Winemaking was a prominent part of life and culture in this part of the world for millennia. However, we don’t speak of regions like Kakheti in Georgia, Central Anatolia in Turkey, or the Bekka Valley in Lebanon with the reverence we do about Bordeaux.

If the rise of interest in natural wines and offbeat winemaking techniques are any indication, maybe you’ll soon see Georgia and Lebanon featured as prominently as Bordeaux on wine lists.

Each region had a variety of individual factors that lead to a slowing down of the wine scene. In Turkey, the historic Ottoman Empire’s ban on alcohol led to a culture with strict alcohol restrictions compared to their Western neighbors, and 83 percent of Turks today still call themselves teetotalers.

In Lebanon, a civil war lasting from 1975 to 1990 made working the fields extremely dangerous, and devastated many historic vineyards, a number of which have only been replanted recently.

According to Lado Uzunashvili, an oenologist and founder of Mukado wines in the Kakheti region of Georgia, the Soviet era was largely to blame for his country’s fine wine decline, as well as that of neighboring Armenia.

“The Soviets emphasized quantity over quality,” says Uzunashvili.

The landscape of Mukado Wines in Kakheti, Georgia / Photo courtesy Mukado
The landscape of Mukado Wines in Kakheti, Georgia / Photo courtesy Mukado

When the Iron Curtain descended, effectively separating the wine scene of Georgia and Armenia from their counterparts in Western Europe, foreign exports and a focus on quality winemaking from the two countries deteriorated in kind. The Soviet government dictated new production quotas and stymied innovation.

In effect, during the decades that California’s wine scene began to boom and Western European vintners were perfecting techniques and their ability to distribute their wines at scale, the original titans of the wine world were forced into hibernation.

Pulling back the curtain

Looking to the future, producers want to highlight wines made from unique native grapes that have been underutilized in better-known winemaking regions.

Rkatsiteli is so ingrained in the region’s culture that local religious lore contends it was the first vine planted by Noah after the biblical flood.

Saperavi, for example, is a source of national pride in Georgia. It’s one of the few teinturier grapes—meaning its flesh and skin are both red—used in single-varietal production. It accounts for the vast majority of the nation’s red-wine production, but is rarely seen outside the area other than isolated plantings around New York’s Finger Lakes region.

Rkatsiteli, an acidic white variety, was the most widely planted winegrape in the Soviet Union until 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev began incentivizing farmers to uproot their vineyards in a nationwide effort to curb alcoholism. According to Vouillamoz, DNA analysis shows Rkatsiteli is one of the closest cultivated grapes to the original wild varieties found by he and McGovern. No genetic “parent” grape has yet been discovered by researchers.

Rkatsiteli is so ingrained in the region’s culture that local religious lore contends it was the first vine planted by Noah after the biblical flood.

Georgian Qvevri fully buried / Photo courtesy Wines of Georgia
Georgian Qvevri fully buried / Photo courtesy Wines of Georgia

Georgian wine is also known for its unique use of local amphorae pots for fermentation and aging, called qvevri. The primary difference from other traditional amphorae styles is that the qvevri are buried, allowing for more consistent temperature control.

In Armenia, high-elevation vines yield fascinating bottlings from local varieties like Voskehat, known as “the Queen of Armenian grapes.” With its honey and apricot notes, the grape lends itself to the country’s signature sweet wines, though producers like Highland Cellars make noteworthy dry 100-percent Voskehat bottlings.

Area winemakers are also trying to drum up foreign interest in local red varieties like Sireni. It’s little known outside Armenia, but the grape is being used by producers like Kataro to create quality dry red bottlings.

Meanwhile, Yacoubian-Hobbs, a venture spearheaded by brothers Vahe and Viken Yacoubian in partnership with winemaker Paul Hobbs, is taking its wine to new heights with their high-altitude plantings, tending to vines growing approximately 5000 feet above sea level. Yacoubian-Hobbs focuses on native grapes, making a single-variety wine from Areni—a late-ripening red variety that thrives in difficult, rocky regions—as well as a white blend composed of Voskehat, Khatuni, Qrdi and Garan Demak.

The Historical Cradles of Wine

Vahe Keushguerian, managing director for Semina Consulting, notes that only about 10 percent of Armenian vines are grafted, as the region escaped the phylloxera epidemic that nearly wiped out European wine production.

In Lebanon, 15 years of civil war stalled the progress of one of the world’s oldest wine-producing areas. Despite this, Château Musar in the Bekaa Valley, established in 1930, has produced quality wines for decades. Musar specializes in wines intended for extensive aging, as current vintages of its red and white offerings are from 2007 and 2006, respectively.

Chateau Musar’s Wine shop in the 1933 on the Avenue des Francais in Beirut / Photo courtesy Chateau Musar
Chateau Musar’s wine shop in the 1933 on the Avenue des Francais in Beirut / Photo courtesy Chateau Musar

Turkey has also seen a resurgence in its seven wine-growing regions with 600–1,200 indigenous varieties of vinifera grapes (only about 60 are being cultivated commercially). Vineyards survived centuries of Ottoman rule and a ban on alcohol as they created other culinary uses for their grapes.

European varieties like Gamay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling have been cultivated in the country in recent years. However, producers like Kavaklidere, the oldest winery in the country, have staked much of their reputation on local grapes like the white Narince grape and the Kalecik Karasi red grape, which was brought back from the brink of extinction.

Is the wine world ready for an old, new world order?

Most winemakers from these historic regions believe their biggest obstacle for overseas success is a lack of recognition in Western markets. Producers have tried to raise awareness of these wines to persuade hesitant consumers and importers.

Are casual wine drinkers ready to try something different? If the rise of interest in natural wines and offbeat winemaking techniques are any indication, maybe you’ll soon see Georgia and Lebanon featured as prominently as Bordeaux on wine lists.

And even if the rest of the world isn’t ready yet, these wine regions have proven their patience. After all, they’ve been here since the beginning.

Published on August 9, 2017
Topics: Wine History
About the Author
Dylan Garret
Associate Digital Editor

A veteran of New York City’s bar and restaurant scene, Garret has lived, breathed and sweated spirits for more than a decade, working as a bartender and beverage director at establishments ranging from Michelin-starred eateries to local Brooklyn pubs. Joining Wine Enthusiast in 2015, he has very strong opinions on proper cocktail garnish. Email: dgarret@wineenthusiast.net




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