Wine and its Origins - The Archaeology and History of Wine Making

What Genius Culture First Thought of Fermenting Grapes?

Chinese Vineyards
Chinese Vineyards. Dominic Rivard

Wine is an alcoholic beverage made from grapes; and depending on your definition of "made from grapes" there are at least two independent inventions of the lovely stuff. The oldest known possible evidence for the use of grapes as part of a wine recipe with fermented rice and honey was in China, about 9,000 years ago. Two thousand years later, the seeds (or I suppose pips) of what became the European wine-making tradition began in western Asia.

Archaeological Evidence

Archaeological evidence of wine-making is a little difficult to come by, of course; the presence of grape seeds, fruit skins, stems and/or stalks in an archaeological site does not necessarily imply the production of wine. Two main methods of identifying wine making that are accepted by scholars are identifying domesticated stocks, and discovering grape processing evidence.

The main change incurred during the domestication process of grapes is that the domesticated forms have hermaphrodite flowers. What that means is that the domesticate forms of the grape are able to self-pollinate. Thus, the vintner can pick traits she likes and, as long as she keeps them all on the same hillside, she need not worry about cross-pollination gumming up the works.

The discovery of parts of the plant outside its native territory is also accepted evidence of domestication. The wild ancestor of the European wild grape (Vitis vinifera va. sylvestris) is native to western Eurasia between the Mediterranean and Caspian seas; thus, the presence of V. vinifera outside of its normal range is also considered evidence of domestication.

Chinese Wines

But the story really must start in China. Residues on pottery sherds from the Chinese early Neolithic site of Jiahu have been recognized as coming from a fermented beverage made of a mixture of rice, honey and fruit, radiocarbon dated to ~7000-6600 BC. The presence of fruit was identified by the tartaric acid/tartrate remnants in the bottom of a jar, familiar to anyone who drinks wine from corked bottles today.

Researchers could not narrow the species of the tartrate down between grape, hawthorn, or longyan or cornelian cherry, or a combination of two or more of those. Grape seeds and hawthorn seeds have both been found at Jiahu. Textual evidence for the use of grapes (but not grape wine) date to the Zhou Dynasty (ca 1046-221 BC).

If grapes were used in wine recipes, they were from a wild grape species native to China-there are between 40 and 50 different wild grape species in China-not imported from western Asia. The European grape was introduced into China in the second century BC, with other imports resulting from the Silk Road.

Western Asia Wines

The earliest firm evidence for wine-making to date in western Asia is from the Neolithic period site called Hajji Firuz, Iran, where a deposit of sediment preserved in the bottom of an amphora proved to be a mix of tannin and tartrate crystals. The site deposits included five more jars like the one with the tannin/tartrate sediment, each with a capacity of about 9 liters of liquid. Hajji Firuz has been dated to 5400-5000 BC.

Sites outside of the normal range for grapes with early evidence for grapes and grape processing in western Asia include Lake Zeriber, Iran, where grape pollen was found in a soil core just before ~4300 cal BC.

Charred fruit skin fragments were found at Kurban Höyük in southeastern Turkey by the late 6th-early 5th millennia BC.

Wine importation from western Asia has been identified in the earliest days of dynastic Egypt. A tomb belonging to the Scorpion King (dated about 3150 BC) contained 700 jars believed to have been made and filled with wine in the Levant and shipped to Egypt.

  • See: Herbal wines of the Scorpion King


European Wine Making

In Europe, wild grape (Vitis vinifera) pips have been found in fairly ancient contexts, such as Franchthi Cave, Greece (12,000 years ago), and Balma de l'Abeurador, France (about 10,000 years ago). But evidence for domesticated grapes is later than that of the East Asia, but similar to that of the western Asia grapes. 

Excavations at a site in Greece called Dikili Tash have revealed grape pips and empty skins, direct-dated to between 4400-4000 BC, the earliest example to date in the Aegean.

A wine production installation dated to ca. 4000 cal BC has been identified at the site of Areni 1 in Armenia, consisting of a platform for crushing grapes, a method of moving the crushed liquid into storage jars and (potentially) evidence for the fermentation of red wine.


This article is a part of the guide to the History of Alcohol, and the Dictionary of  Archaeology.The Origins and Ancient History of Wine is a highly recommended website at the University of Pennsylvania, maintained by archaeologist Patrick McGovern. 

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Wine and its Origins - The Archaeology and History of Wine Making." ThoughtCo, Feb. 10, 2017, Hirst, K. Kris. (2017, February 10). Wine and its Origins - The Archaeology and History of Wine Making. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Wine and its Origins - The Archaeology and History of Wine Making." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 19, 2018).