Ancient jug found in Italy rewrites history of European wine drinking

25 Aug 2017

Ancient wine jug, similar to the one discovered in Italy. Image: Tasha Cherkasova/Shutterstock

Italy is famous for its illustrious history of wine production, but new findings suggest that the country has been doing it for far longer than we thought.

The next time you take a sip of a fine Chianti, spare a thought that you might be sharing in a tradition that is far older than once thought.

According to new research from the University of South Florida, our knowledge of when wine production began in Italy has been pushed back millennia after some analysis of an archaeological dig.

Tradition said that wine growing and wine production developed in Italy sometime in the middle of the bronze age, between 1300 and 1100 BCE.

However, based on chemical analysis of a large storage jar found in Agrigento – located off the south-west coast of Sicily – it actually dates as far back as 4000 BCE.

Future wine under threat

Led by Davide Tanasi, the team’s paper published in Microchemical Journal revealed it had conducted chemical analysis of residue on unglazed pottery found at the copper age site.

When brought back to the lab, it was determined that the residue contained tartaric acid and sodium salt, which occur naturally in grapes and in the winemaking process.

This in itself was a major achievement – it’s very rare to determine the composition of such residue as it requires the ancient pottery to be excavated intact.

As you do, the team is now trying to figure out whether the ancient people of the Italian peninsula were white wine or red wine drinkers.

Meanwhile, wine’s future remains under threat from climate change, which is already beginning to have an impact on European wineries.

“The impact of climate change on wine production is quite real,” said Dr Elizabeth Wolkovich, an ecologist at the Harvard University Center for the Environment in July.

“Producing good (or great) wine grapes requires an accurate matching of the wine grape variety to the local climate. But, with climate change, the challenges will only grow as temperatures continue to rise and precipitation regimes continue to shift.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic