It’s the holiday season, which means the wine is flowing as people around the world gather to celebrate. Whether it’s a small family dinner or the observance of an age-old religious tradition, wine has long been a staple of the holidays. Today, some people spend thousands of dollars to build elaborate wine cellars so their libations will always be at hand, but did you know that rooms dedicated to the storage of this fermented drink go back thousands of years? In fact, archaeologists digging at the ruins of a 1700 BCE Canaanite palace in northern Israel have found what may be one of civilization’s oldest and largest wine cellars.
It is believed that wine making began in Mesopotamia and areas surrounding the Caspian Sea between 6000 and 4000 BCE, but the ancient Egyptians were the first to document the wine-making process. The drink was reserved for royalty, priests and the social elite so it is not surprising that the massive wine cellar was found inside a palace. Archaeologists say the room measures 15×25 feet and held the equivalent of about 3,000 bottles of red and white wine—and there may be even more storage rooms they have yet to uncover.
Eric H. Cline, a co-director of the Tel Kabri excavations, in a statement issued by George Washington University where he is chairman of the department of classical and Near Eastern languages and civilizations said, “This is a hugely significant discovery. It’s a wine cellar that, to our knowledge, is largely unmatched in its age and size.”
The team was able to extract wine residue from the cellar and perform a chemical analysis that found organic traces of acids common to components of all wine. They also found traces of honey, mint, cinnamon bark, juniper berries and resins used as a preservative, all of which were popular in ancient wine-making. Because the ancient Egyptians kept records of their wine recipes on cuneiform, archaeologists were able to determine that the wine in the ancient cellar resembled a medicinal Egyptian wine. They also noted that it probably tasted similar to retsina, a Greek white resinated wine which has been made for at least 2000 years and is described as having the flavor of turpentine and pine trees. Interestingly, another member of the team, Andrew Koh of Brandeis University, believes his group will be able to “produce a reasonable facsimile of the 1700 B.C. vintage favored by the palace elite in the land of Canaan.”
Today, wine makers have a plethora of modern technologies for wine production, although many fashioners of the grape’s glory still adhere to basics: don’t get in the way of nature, understand that wine-making is an art as well as science and stay close to the process. According to Robert Foley of Robert Foley Vineyards in Angwin, California, “Getting the most expression, intensity of character and balanced fruit from the vineyards are keys….Basically, it’s making great grapes from understood land.” And although technology and science have made sorting, extraction and storage easier and more economical, vintners agree that constant diligence is the secret to the body, aroma and flavor of wine.
Read more from Paul Franzen’s article “What Makes Great Wines” in Wines and Vines.
The Canaanites certainly mastered the art and science of their own preserves given the extent of their wine cellar. Of course, wine in ancient times had more than just a celebratory, ritualistic or medicinal purpose. Since potable drinking water was not assured, and preservation of milk or other products difficult, wine was substituted and often the beverage of choice. And that isn’t the only benefit of wine. In fact, many scholars reference its documented life-sustaining properties for ancient people. According to Joel Butler, co-author of Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age:
Those calories (from wine) probably accounted for a lot more of the energy people obtained daily at the time than they do today, which is a major difference….Wine gave people calories, potable water, and helped hydrate them for the heavy labor most undertook. The huge wine trade throughout the Mediterranean — originally from the Levant and trafficked via Egyptian, Phoenician, and Greek traders — is clearly supported by the huge amount of amphorae discovered in sites on land and underwater shipwrecks. If people were not heavily reliant on wine as a key part of their diet, this trade would not have existed or have been so widespread.
Whether it’s red or white, fruity or turpentine flavored, wine continues to hold pride of place on tables around the world today, its production imbued with a long tradition of grape mastery from ancient to modern times. So this holiday season, remember the ancient party-going Canaanites and toast the ingenuity and palate of vintners through the ages.
*Click here to see how our most elaborate modern wine cellars stack up against the ancient: “The Ten Most Over-The-Top Wine Cellars That Money Can Buy”
*Spice up your holiday party by serving a modern cocktail inspired the ancient Greek wine retsina:
4 ounces retsina (or to taste)
4 ounces Fever-Tree Tonic Water
Juice of 1/3 lime, plus wedge
Sprig of rosemary or mint, for garnish (optional)
Add ice to a rocks glass. Add the retsina, tonic water, lime juice and lime wedge into the glass. Stir well and garnish with rosemary or mint.
9. Weiner, James Blake, “Drink of the Gods: Wine in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean”, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 04 September, 2013. http://www.ancient.eu.com/news/4079/