Vitis vinifera: Origins of the Domesticated Grapevine

Who First Turned the Wild Grape into Raisins and Wine?

Wine Harvest At Chateau Fontcaille Bellevue
Bunches of grapes ready for harvesting at Chateau Fontcaille Bellevue on September 16, 2011 in Bordeaux, France. Anwar Hussein / WireImage / Getty Images

Domesticated grapevine (Vitis vinifera, sometimes called V. sativa) was one of the most important fruit species in the classic Mediterranean world, and it is the most important economic fruit species in the modern world today. As in the ancient past, sun-loving grapevines are today cultivated to produce fruits, which are eaten fresh (as table grapes) or dried (as raisins), and, most especially, to make wine, a drink of great economic, cultural, and symbolic value.

The Vitis family consists of about 60 inter-fertile species that exist almost exclusively in the Northern Hemisphere: of those, V. vinifera is the only one extensively used in the global wine industry. Approximately 10,000 cultivars of V. vinifera exist today, although the market for wine production is dominated by only a handful of them. Cultivars are typically classified according to whether they produce wine grapes, table grapes, or raisins.

Domestication History

Most evidence indicates that V. vinifera was domesticated in Neolithic southwest Asia between ~6000–8000 years ago, from its wild ancestor V. vinifera spp. sylvestris, sometimes referred to as V. sylvestris. V. sylvestris, while quite rare in some locations, currently ranges between the Atlantic coast of Europe and the Himalayas. A second possible center of domestication is in Italy and the western Mediterranean, but so far the evidence for that is not conclusive.

DNA studies suggest that one reason for the lack of clarity is the frequent occurrence in the past of purposeful or accidental cross-breeding of domestic and wild grapes.

The earliest evidence for wine production—in the form of chemical residues inside pots—is from Iran at Hajji Firuz Tepe in the northern Zagros mountains about 7400–7000 BP.

Shulaveri-Gora in Georgia had residues dated to the 6th millennium BC. Seeds from what are believed to be domesticated grapes have been found in Areni Cave in southeastern Armenia, about 6000 BP, and Dikili Tash from northern Greece, 4450–4000 BCE.

DNA from grape pips thought to be domesticated was recovered from Grotta della Serratura in southern Italy from levels dated to 4300–4000 cal BCE. In Sardinia, the earliest dated fragments come from the Late Bronze Age levels of the Nuragic culture settlement of Sa Osa, 1286–1115 cal BCE.


By about 5,000 years ago, grapevines were traded out to the western margin of the Fertile Crescent, the Jordan Valley, and Egypt. From there, the grape was spread throughout the Mediterranean basin by various Bronze Age and Classical societies. Recent genetic investigations suggest that at this distribution point, the domestic V. vinifera was crossed with local wild plants in the Mediterranean.

According to the 1st century BCE Chinese historical record Shi Ji, grapevines found their way into East Asia in the late 2nd century BCE, when General Qian Zhang returned from the Fergana Basin of Uzbekistan between 138–119 BCE. Grapes were later brought to Chang'an (now Xi'an city) via the Silk Road.

Archaeological evidence from the steppe society Yanghai Tombs indicates, however, that grapes were grown in the Turpan Basin (at the western edge of what is today China) by at least 300 BCE.

The founding of Marseille (Massalia) about 600 BCE is thought to have been connected with grape cultivation, suggested by the presence of a large number of wine amphorae from its early days. There, Iron Age Celtic people bought large quantities of wine for feasting; but overall viticulture was slow-growing until, according to Pliny, retired members of the Roman legion moved to the Narbonnaisse region of France at the end of the 1st century BCE. These old soldiers grew grapes and mass-produced wine for their working colleagues and the urban lower classes.

Differences between Wild and Domestic Grapes

The main difference between wild and domestic forms of grape is the wild form's ability to cross-pollinate: wild V. vinifera can self-pollinate, while domestic forms cannot, which allows farmers to control a plant's genetic characteristics.

The domestication process increased the size of bunches and berries, and the berry's sugar content as well. The end result was greater yields, more regular production, and better fermentation. Other elements, such as larger flowers and a wide range of berry colors—particularly white grapes—are believed to have been bred into the grape later in the Mediterranean region.

None of these characteristics are identifiable archaeologically, of course: for that, we must rely on changes in grape seed ("pips") size and shape and genetics. In general, wild grapes bear roundish pips with short stalks, while domestic varieties are more elongated, with long stalks. Researchers believe the change results from the fact that larger grapes have larger, more elongated pips. Some scholars suggest that when pip shape varies within a single context, that probably indicates viticulture in process. However, in general, using shape, size, and form is only successful if the seeds were not deformed by carbonization, water-logging, or mineralization. All of those processes are what allows grape pits to survive in archaeological contexts. Some computer visualization techniques have been used to examine pip shape, techniques which hold promise to resolve this issue.

DNA Investigations and Specific Wines

So far, DNA analysis doesn't really help either. It supports the existence of one and possibly two original domestication events, but so many deliberate crossings since then have blurred researchers' ability to identify the origins.

What does seem apparent is that cultivars were shared across wide distances, along with multiple events of vegetative propagation of specific genotypes throughout the wine-making world.

Speculation is rampant in the non-scientific world about the origins of specific wines: but so far scientific support of those suggestions is rare. A few that are supported include the Mission cultivar in South America, which was introduced into South America by Spanish missionaries as seeds. Chardonnay is likely to have been the result of a medieval-period cross between Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc that took place in Croatia. The Pinot name dates to the 14th century and might have been present as early as the Roman Empire. And Syrah/Shiraz, despite its name suggesting an Eastern origination, arose from French vineyards; as did Cabernet Sauvignon.


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Hirst, K. Kris. "Vitis vinifera: Origins of the Domesticated Grapevine." ThoughtCo, Dec. 31, 2017, Hirst, K. Kris. (2017, December 31). Vitis vinifera: Origins of the Domesticated Grapevine. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Vitis vinifera: Origins of the Domesticated Grapevine." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 24, 2018).