Friday, April 13, 2012

The origin of wine: The grape story

The origin of wine is shrouded in the mists of time, legend, religion, and myth but this reality should not dissuade us from peering through the mist seeking, as we do in so many areas, answers to the question "How did it all begin?"

In his book exploring the origin of viniculture (Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origin of Viniculture, Princeton University Press, 2003), Dr. Patrick E. McGovern pointed to a number of ancient origin stories and their inability to stand up to even the most elementary scrutiny.  For example, some of the ancients held that wine had sprung from the blood of humans who had fought with the gods (and apparently lost).  In a Persian origin story, one King Jamsheed was such a lover of grapes that he had them placed in a jar (to ensure a year-round supply) and had that jar labeled "poison."  One of the harem consorts had been suffering with a terrible headache and, I guess, to end the misery, drank the liquid that had pooled in the jar.   After a long, deep sleep, she awoke, miraculously cured of her condition.  She, of course, relayed the story to the king who recognized the medicinal benefit of the brew and ordered that it be made in greater quantities for broader consumption (he had a captive customer base)

While these apocryphal tales can be easily brushed aside, the field of archaeology has provided some tantalizing clues as to the origin of wine, and it is these pointers that I will relay using, as my guide, works from Dr. McGovern (who, by the way, is the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum) and other leading scholars in the field.  The effort will be broken down into two phases: (i) an examination of the origin of the wine grape and (ii) an attempt to identify the geographical and temporal origins of viniculture.

According to Dr. McGovern, the modern day wine grape can probably trace its roots back to a climbing vine called Ampelopsis that lived over 500 million years ago.  Isolation -- spawned by the breakup of the super-continent Pangea, desertification, and other natural barriers -- led to today's plant family Vitaceae.  Vitaceae, according to Gyulai et al. (Morphogenetics of Ancient Vitis -- A Genotype Reconstruction), are woody climbers comprising between 13 and 17 genera (subdivisions), inclusive of Vitis, and 700 species.  The figure below shows selected elements of the Vitis taxonomy.

According to Patrice This et al. (Historical origins and genetic diversity of wine grapes, Trends in Genetics, 2006), the Vitis genus is comprised of 60 inter-fertile species, of which Vitis vinifera L is the only species used extensively in winemaking.  This species, according to This et al., first appeared approximately 65 million years ago and is the only species in the genus that is indigenous to Eurasia.  Two forms of the species still exist in Eurasia and North Africa today: V. vinifera subspecies vinifera (sativa) and V. vinifera silvestris (sylvestris).  Silvestris is the wild form of the species, according to This et al., while vinifera is its domesticated counterpart.

The wild form of V. vinifera can be found today from Portugal to Turkmenistan and from the Rhine riversides to the northern forests of Tunisia. The characteristics of the modern Eurasian wild grape are as follows: astringent; small fruit with many seeds; high acidity; tough skin; and black or dark red color.  Silvestris is also largely dioecious; that is, the male and female reproductive organs are carried on separate flowers (as opposed to hermaphroditic, where the male and female sex organs reside on the same flower thus simplifying the fertilization process).  Research has shown that primitive forms of silvestris were hermaphroditic (Dr. McGovern) and, up to today, between 2% and 3% of silvestris retain that characteristic (Dr. José Vouillamez, Anatolia -- Cradle of Wine? Wines of Turkey presentation).

The sameness of the wild grape stands in stark contrast to the diversity of subspecies vinifera (as of today, almost 10,000 clonal types exist and 99.9% of the world's wine is made from its grapes).  According to Dr. McGovern, this "... diversity is recent and the result of choosing traits that are desirable and propagating them by cuttings or routings."  What was the source of this traits?  The literature is unanimous in finding that silvestris, the wild Eurasian grape, was, at some time in the past, taken into cultivation by our forebears and domesticated.  The capability of selecting and propagating traits was, according to Dr. McGovern, unknown to humans of the Paleolithic age.

© Wine -- The View From Orlando

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