There are winemakers around the world who will stop at nothing to link their wines to “the classics.” In Chile you’ll hear all about how the Carménère is really from Bordeaux. In Argentina you’ll be reminded that the Pinot is from Burgundy and the Malbec from Cahors. Vintners in California will take pains to inform you that Zinfandel is a cousin of Primitivo, an Italian grape. Any time those in the wine world look for authority, quality and authenticity they invariably look towards Western Europe- the Old World.
Take a walk through any museum with more than four or five renaissance paintings and you’ll see your fair share of deep red wine. In vivid oil there’ll be carafes on tables overflowing with treasures, bottles being exchanged by ambassadors and crystal glasses painted into the hands of kings and queens.
Read romantic English poetry and literature and watch wine pour out of the pages. John Keats’ request for a fine and sophisticated life was simply, “Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know.”
You really don’t have to read Keats or be a member of the Met to know that winemaking is viewed as a Western institution, and a proud one. Wine is one of the biggest feathers in the West’s bedazzled cap, but evidence suggests that it wasn’t “invented” in Italy, Spain or France. In fact, to find the origins of mankind’s favorite beverage, scientists and researchers say we’ve got to look much farther east.
“For some time, the French proposed, and we all believed, that their varieties were the ‘noble’ varieties.” Stetson Robbins says.
Stetson is an Eastern wine geek extraordinaire and the Sales Manager at Blue Danube Wine, an importer that brings nothing but Eastern European bottles to the USA. He’s talking about grape genealogy, which means it’s a typical afternoon.
“They proposed that French grapes were kind of like the king grapes, and everything sort of disseminated from there,” he continues, “but this was prior to being able to test the genetics of grapes. Grape genetics has had a big impact on our understanding of how wine has evolved, and modern archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest fermented beverages that contained grapes were made in China and the Fertile Crescent.”
If you’ve ever purchased a bottle of vino at a bodega you’ll know that ‘fermented beverages that contained grapes’ and ‘wine’ are two very different things. Humans fermented all sorts of stuff in all sorts of places millennia ago, but not much of it was actually wine.
“Before pure grape wine arrived on the scene,” Stetson points out, “we were making, like, ancient Pruno. Our alcoholic beverages were a lot closer to prison wine where you’re saving your bread and oranges and collecting sugar packets, whatever you can to ferment something that will intoxicate you and your friends. It was probably pretty foul.”
Understandably, academics aren’t too concerned with finding archaeological traces of the first batches of Pruno. To find the so-called cradle of vinification, it makes the most sense to look for the earliest evidence of domesticated grapevines, to locate the first sites where humans attempted to make real grape wine on purpose.
As it turns out, that magical place where mankind left prison wine behind (until modern prisons were built) lies somewhere between Georgia and Armenia, right on the cusp of Eastern Europe and Asia. The Georgians and Armenians are still arguing over the bragging rights, but one thing is clear: wine is a product of the East.
Though it may be true that when we think of wine we automatically think of France, it’s also true that the birthplace of the beverage is at least 2,000 miles from the hallowed terroir of Bordeaux. Slowly but steadily, wine and wine culture spread from Asia and Eastern Europe to the West, the countries that claimed to be wine’s motherlands. These discoveries won’t knock the classics off of their pedestals, but they do change the way we see the wine world and how wine culture spread across it.
In Stetson’s words, “our picture or idea of how wine developed is very different than how it actually did. Wine came not from the West,” he smiles, “it came from the East.”