Enjoy Old French Wine? How’s 2,500 Years For You?

Archaeologists—with a little help from NASA—find the oldest wine in France

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

If you’re like most people, when you think of wine, you think of France. But like some of the most inspired ethnic food and drink—like Italian red sauce, which wasn’t even invented until the discovery of the American tomato—wine has its roots far from the country most associated with it, in the mountains of the Middle East. It made its way west across the Mediterranean, sloshing in clay amphorae nestled in wooden ships, in the millennium before the birth of Christ, eventually washing up on the shores of the Etruscans, who lived in what is now northwestern Italy. It was the Etruscans, archaeologists think, who then introduced wine to the inhabitants of what is now France.

Wine’s conquest of the ancient world is usually traced using the presence of amphorae in archaeological sites, but thanks to ever-improving chemical analyses, researchers are starting to use new kinds of evidence. Now, a team of archaeologists, in collaboration with analytical chemists and a NASA scientist whose main job is looking for signs of possible life in meteorites, have identified the earliest known signatures of winemaking in France. Their study, which suggests wine was being produced there as early as 425 BC, was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

The team’s central discovery is the identification of tartaric acid on a limestone pressing platform in the ancient town of Lattara, on the southern coast of France. Tartaric acid is commonly found in grape juice, and has been used before by archaeologists as a sign of ancient wine, but the molecule is fragile—it breaks down easily and its signature in a chemical readout can be drowned out by other  substances. Especially on non-absorbent surfaces like the limestone platform—which, before the study, was thought to be an olive oil press—it can be difficult to discern. “We needed a really sensitive way to analyze tartaric acid,” recalls Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania and lead author.

(MORE: Road Workers Destroy Ancient Mayan Pyramid)

Fortunately, this was not the team’s first experience in the ancient beverage identification game. McGovern specializes in this kind of work, and he had once shared samples of vessels containing ancient drinking chocolate with Michael Callahan, an analytical chemist at NASA’s Goddard Space Center who develops methods for testing meteorites for organic materials. When Callahan heard about the plan to test the stone platform, he offered to share his expertise in orbitrap mass spectrometry, an exceptionally sensitive molecular analysis used mainly by biology labs, and a significant improvement over other, older techniques.

Soon, vials of ground-up stone from the platform were making their way to the Space Center, along with samples of dirt and brick to compare against, and scrapings from Etruscan amphorae found in a collapsed merchant’s house in the ancient town. The samples were run through a chemical gauntlet that extracted any plant residues in the powders and then weighed those molecules very precisely, looking for specific patterns that would reveal their identities.

Though the usual techniques showed only very faint signs, the orbitrap analysis found that indeed, there was clear tartaric acid on the pressing platform. That, combined with ancient grape seeds, stems and skins found elsewhere around the site, made this the earliest evidence of winemaking in France, the researchers conclude—at least a hundred years earlier than prior work suggested. The Etruscan amphorae also contained tartaric acid, as well as signs of pine resin, rosemary, and other spices that ancient peoples often added to wine. That wine isn’t thought to have been locally made, necessarily—the amphorae predate the platform by decades—but its discovery adds credence to the longstanding theory that these sorts of vessels were used to import Etruscan wine before native winemaking took hold.

(MORE: A Feud Between Biblical Archaeologists Goes to Court)

The results have excited people in the field. Enrico Capellini of the University of Copenhagen, who has used ancient DNA as a way to study ancient wine, applauds the use of orbitrapping for this purpose. “It’s applied for the first time, as far as I know, on archaeological samples, and this is a step forward,” he says, noting that it is a state-of-the-art technique even for chemists and biologists, though he stresses that DNA analysis of the seeds would add still more detail to the story.

The team hopes to use their techniques at other sites. Benjamin Luley a co-author of the paper, who just finished his doctorate in anthropology at University of Chicago, says he hopes to test enormous clay storage vessels found in France, generally thought to be storage containers for grain. But images of grapes were stamped into the clay of some of them, suggesting they may have also been used for wine storage.

No matter who first brought wine to what is now France, they did not technically give it to the French. The people living there at the time were Celts, who seem to have disappeared from the scene after the Romans conquered the area. And the herb-laced wine they drank—a soupçon of pine resin, anyone?—might not be pleasant to the modern French palate. “The taste of the wine was probably a lot different from what we think of today,” Luley says. It’s charming to think, though, of the idea of wine coming down through the centuries and across great distances, until it could be passed on through successive generations of the inhabitants of the land where it is now known—and loved—so well.

(MORE: Possible Ancient Burial Ground Discovered Beneath Sea of Galilee in Israel)