Traces of 6,000 Year-Old Wine Discovered in a Sicilian Cave


Researchers have recently uncovered evidence of what would appear to be Italy's oldest wine-making facility in a cave in Sicily. Various intact terracotta amphorae found in the cave contained residue which chemical tests indicated was a natural by-product of winemaking implying that the pottery had been used in winemaking and/or storage. This finding plus carbon dating of the pottery suggest that wine-making was practiced and wine consumed in southern Italy as early as 4000 BC, much earlier than previous discoveries indicated.

The amphorae were discovered in 2012 in a cave on Mount Kronio in southern Sicily not far from the seaside hamlet of Sciacca in Agrigento province. Analysis of residue in the amphorae indicated the presence of tartaric acid and its salt which are natural by-products of the grape fermentation process. The presence of the tartaric acid and its salt is compelling evidence that the amphorae were used for either winemaking or wine storage or possibly both.

The wine-residue-bearing amphorae, which amazingly were found intact, are reliably dated as being from the fourth millennium BC. This is a period known as the Copper Age when early Europeans began using metal tools and more complex social structures and trading networks began to evolve.

Previous research based on discovery of ancient grape seeds suggests that wine making in Italy didn’t start until about 1200 BC in the late Bronze Age. But if the preliminary results of the Sicily discovery hold up to further analysis it will push back the date the practice of winemaking took hold in Italy almost three thousand years to approximately 4000 BC which significantly predates the arrival of the ancient Greeks with their grape varieties and viticultural practices.

It may also turn out to be evidence of the oldest wine produced not only in Italy but perhaps anywhere in the world. Heretofore, the birthplace of viticulture was thought to reside in the Armenia-Georgia region that straddles the border of Europe and Asia. It is here that several potential wine-making sites dating back to the 4th millennium BC have been excavated, coincidentally the same approximate period as the recent Sicilian discovery.

Perhaps the most well-known of these sites is one discovered in 2011 in a cave near the village of Areni in Armenia. Archaeologists uncovered fermentation and storage containers as well as remnants of grape skins and seeds. Chemical tests also revealed traces of malvidin, the plant-based pigment that is very abundant in nature and gives grapes and several other fruits - like blueberries, cranberries and pomegranates - their red-to-blue color. But no evidence of tartaric acid and its salt was found which would provide more definitive evidence that the containers were used to ferment grapes for production of wine. The presence of malvidin, while interesting, is by itself is not sufficient to certify existence of winemaking since the residue could be attributable to other fruits such as pomegranates, for example, which are prevalent in the region.

So the recent Sicilian discoveries are very exciting. Carbon dating of the ancient pottery indicates that they are about 6,000 years old and chemical tests of the organic residue in the pottery provides convincing evidence that the pottery was used for winemaking. This pushes the date winemaking took hold in Sicily back several thousand years, to about 4000 BC, the oldest for Italy and perhaps the world. The research team has indicated that they plan to conduct additional research on the wine residue to assess whether the fermented wine was red or white.

The team conducting the research consists of scientists from the U.S., Italy and other various countries. The lead researcher is Davide Tanasi, Ph.D. of the University of South Florida in Tampa. You can listen to a brief four-minute audio recording of an interview with Dr. Tanasi by the U.K.'s BBC that includes additional details and significance of his team’s discovery. Those more technically inclined can read the excruciatingly detailed analysis recently published by Dr. Tanasi and his team of scientists in the Microchemical Journal.


©Richard Marcis
September 16, 2017

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