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What Genius Culture First Thought of Fermenting Grapes?

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Wine is a alcoholic drink that is made from grapes. There are at most two distinct ways to make wine according to how you think about grapes. China is the home of the oldest evidence of grapes being used in recipes for wine using honey and fermented rice. It goes back about 9,000 years. Two thousand years later, the roots of the European winemaking culture were planted in the west of Asia.

Archaeological Evidence

It is hard to locate archaeological evidence to show that winemaking was conducted at an archaeological site. The presence of grape skins, grape seeds and/or stalks does not necessarily indicate that wine was made. Researchers accept two ways to identify winemaking and evidence of processing and domesticated stock.

Hermaphroditic plants were the most significant mutation that occurred during the domestication of grapes. This means that the grapes grown in domestic areas can self-pollinate. Vintners can select the traits they prefer and so long as they keep the grapes on the same hill they don’t have to worry about cross-pollinating and changing the grapes that will be harvested next year.

The discovery of portions of the plant outside its home territory is acknowledged evidence of domestication. The wild ancestor of the European wild grape (Vitis vinifera sylvestris) is native to the western part of Eurasia in the region between Mediterranean and Caspian Seas. Therefore, the presence of V. vinifera outside of its normal distribution is believed to be evidence of domestication.

Chinese Wines

The real story of wine from grapes begins in China. Radiocarbon remnants discovered on pottery shards from Jiahu’s Chinese Neolithic site around 7000-6600 BCE were attributed to the fermentation of a beverage that contained honey, rice and fruits.

The presence of fruit was confirmed by the remnants of tartaric acid/tartrate in the bottom of a container. (These are familiar to all who consumes wine from corked bottles today.) Researchers were unable to determine the tartrate of the species between longyan, grape, hawthorn, and cornelian cherry. Hawthorn seeds and grape seeds have both been discovered in Jiahu. The Zhou Dynasty, circa 1046-221 BCE is a textual proof that grapes were utilized.

The wine ingredients used in recipes must come from wild grape varieties native to China and not imported from the Western part of Asia. There are 40 to 50 wild grape varieties in China. Wine history shows that China was introduced to European grape during the second century BCE along with other Silk Road imports.

Western Asia Wines

The first reliable evidence of winemaking to date in western Asia originates found at the Neolithic period site of Hajji Firuz, Iran (dated to 5400-5000 BCE) in which the remains of sediment at the bottom of an amphora was discovered to be a mix of tartrate and tannin crystals. The site’s deposit included five additional jars that were identical to those with the tartrate/tannic sediment each with a capacity of about nine milliliters of liquid.

Sites that do not fall within the normal range for grapes but show evidence of grape processing in western Asia include Lake Zeriber in Iran. The grape’s pollen was found in a soil core before 4300 cal BC. Fruit skin fragments that were charred were discovered in Kurban Hoyuk in southeastern Turkey by the late sixth through the early fifth millennia BCE.

In the early days of the dynastic period in Egypt imports of wine from western Asia were identified. A tomb of the King of Scorpion (dated circa 3150 BCE) contained 700 jars thought to have been made and filled with wine in the Levant and transported to Egypt.

European Winemaking

Wild grape (Vitis Vinifera) pip was discovered in Europe quite a while ago at Franchthi Cave, Greece (about 12,000 years ago) and Balma de l’Abeurador (about 10,000 years ago). However, evidence of domesticated grapes dates back further than evidence from the East Asian region, though it is similar to the evidence for western Asia grapes.

Excavations at an archaeological site in Greece called Dikili Tash have revealed grape pip and empty skins that have been direct-dated to between 4400-4000 BCE the first evidence to be found in the Aegean. A clay cup that contained grape juice and grape pressings may be evidence of the fermentation process in Dikili Tash. There have been grapevines and also wood.

A wine production installation dated to around 4000 BCE has been identified on the site of the Areni-1 cave complex in Armenia which consists of an area for crushing grapes, a system for transporting the crushed liquid into storage jars, and potentially, evidence of the fermentation of red wine.

Viniculture was an extremely valuable commercial and cultural item. It spread rapidly during the Roman period and most likely due to Roman expansion. It was a significant commercial and speculative commodity at the close of the first century BCE.

The Long Road to New-World Wines

When Icelandic explorer Leif Erikson landed on the shores of North America circa 1000 CE He named the new territory Vinland (alternately spelled Winland) due to the profusion of grapevines that grew wild there. Not surprisingly, when European arrivals started moving into the New World about 600 years later, the huge potential for viticulture seemed obvious.

Unfortunately and with the notable exception of Vitis Rotundifolia (known by its colloquial name muscadine or “Scuppernong” grape) which flourished predominantly in the South, most varieties of native grapes settlers first encountered were not suitable to making tasty–or even potable–wine. To make even modest amounts of wine, it took many years and many attempts.

“The struggle to make wine in the New World yield wine such as the ones they were used to in Europe was begun by the first settlers, and continued for generations but ended in defeat repeatedly time,” writes award-winning culinary writer and professor of English Emeritus at Pomona College, Thomas Pinney. The venture to grow European grape varieties for winemaking was among the most frustrating and eagerly awaited endeavors in American history. It wasn’t until it was realized that only indigenous grape varieties could prevail against the prevalent diseases and the harsh conditions of North America did winemaking have chances in the eastern portion of the country.”

Pinney notes that American viticulture was not changed until California’s colonization in the mid-19th century. European grapes flourished in the mild climate of California and sparked an industry. He is able to attribute the successes of hybrid grapes, trial and error, and the expansion of winemaking beyond California to a wider range of issues.

“By the start of the 20th century the cultivation of grapes as well as the making of wines across the United States was a proven and vital economic activity” the author writes. “The hopes of the first settlers, after more than three centuries of trials defeat, trial, and renewed efforts, were at last realized.”

Wine Innovations for the 20th Century

The fermentation of wine is done with yeast. Until the mid-20th century, this process relied on naturally-occurring yeasts. The fermentations could be inconsistent and could result in spoilage due to their slow process.

In the 1950s and 1960s pure starter strains derived from the Mediterranean Saccharomyces cerevisiae species were developed. This was a major breakthrough in winemaking. Since that time commercial wine fermentations have been incorporating the use of these S. cerevisiae strains, and there are hundreds of commercially-favorable yeast starter cultures around the globe, which allows for the production of wine with a consistent quality.

Another game-changing–and controversial–innovation that had a huge impact on 20th-century winemaking was the introduction of screw-cap tops and synthetic corks. The bottle stoppers challenged traditional natural cork’s dominance that dates back to prehistoric Egyptian times.

Screw-top wine bottles first came into fashion in 1950s. They were associated with “value-oriented wine jugs” according to Allison Aubrey, a James Beard journalist for the BBC. The image of gallon-sized bottles and cheap wines with fruit flavors was hard to overcome. However, corks as a natural product aren’t the perfect product. Corks that were not correctly sealed might be leaking, dried out, and then crumble. Cork taint or cork taint are words that refer to wines that have been spoilt, regardless of whether it was sealed in a bottle.

Australia one of the top wine-producing countries around the world, began to rethink the cork in the late 1980s. Synthetic corks and new screw-top technologies helped to improve the quality of the market for wine. While some oenophiles will not accept anything else than cork, the majority of wine lovers are now embracing the newer technology. Bagged and boxed wine, along with recent advancements are becoming more popular also.

Fast facts: 21st Century U.S. Wine Statistics

In February of 2019, there were 10,043 wineries operating in the United States.
California is the state with the most production per state, with 4,425 wineries. The next state is Washington (776), Oregon (773), New York (396), Texas (333) and Virginia (280).
The proportion of Americans who drink wine is 40 percent. This amounts to 240,000,000 people.
U.S. wine drinkers by gender: 56% male, 44% female
U.S. wine drinkers by age group age group: Aged (age 73)+ 5 percent; Baby Boomers (54-62) and 34 percent; GenX (42-53), 34 percent Gen. X (19 percent to 19%) GenX (19% to 19%); Gen X (19% to 19%); (22-41) and 36 percent; I-Generation (21-24), 6 percent
Consumption of wine per person: 11. liters/person each year or 2.94 Gallons

21st-Century Wine Technology

One of the most interesting developments in 21st Century winemaking is a technique called micro-oxygenation (known as “mox”) which reduces certain risks that come with the aging of red wines by traditional methods that require red wines are stored in cork-sealed bottles.

Cork’s tiny pores let enough oxygen in the wine’s aging process. The process “softens” the tannins in the wine which allows the wine’s distinct flavor profile develop, usually over a long period of time. Mox mimics natural aging through gradually adding oxygen to the wine while it is being produced. The resulting wines are generally more stable, smoother and contain fewer unpleasant and unpleasant notes.

DNA sequencing, another recent trend, has allowed researchers to track the expansion of S. cerevisiae within commercial wines over the last 50 years, comparing and contrasting different geographical regions as well as, according to research this could result in improved wines in the future.