According to the bible, the origins of wine go back to Noah. The bible also indicates that Noah was the first person to drink to excess, be found naked in his own vineyard, and wake up with a hangover. This is not only highly unlikely but probably reflects theological doctrine more than it does any historical evidence of the development of viticulture.
However, it does reflect the general belief that viticulture was the result of a single domestication of old world vines, thousands of years ago: How many thousands of years is contested.
It is generally thought that most domestications of plants and animals took place between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago. Small scale genetic analysis has pegged the cultivation of grapes at between 15,000 and 400,000 years ago, which is so huge a range as to be useless in any scientific sense. In addition, current science says that hominids left Africa about 60,000 years ago, which doesn’t help much in seeking the origins of wine either.
In an article just published in the journal Science, Chen Wei of Yunnan Agricultural University in China, together with collaborators from around the world, have distilled a new picture. They say they have discovered that grape-vines were domesticated on two occasions in quick succession, but in different parts of the world. The team have set the time of this domestication at approximately 11,000 years ago – slightly before Noah’s time!
Chen Wei reports that the old theories were wildly disparate more because of a lack of data, rather than any attempt to falsify the information; those theories were based on 70 varieties of wild grapes from a small region of Germany. The new study includes 3,500 varieties with approximately 1,000 being wild.
This large number of samples required some extensive work. Kristina Margaryan, of the Institute of Molecular Biology in Armenia, spent weeks trekking through her country’s hills collecting what would later turn out to be hundreds of previously unknown varieties of wild grape.
Here, the research project gets a little complicated, mainly because of the scale of the work.
DNA analysis of all these samples revealed that all the varieties tested arose from a proto-vine, which split some 200,000 to 400,000 years ago into two varieties; Syl-E, which flourished in the Caucasus and the Levant and Syl-W, which grew across Western Europe.
The last Ice Age eliminated many plants in northern climes, and those that survived, did so because they adapted. In terms of grapevines this resulted in Syl-E splitting into Syl-E1 and Syl-E2 around 56,000 years ago. Syl-W also split into two strains, but much later, around 500 years ago. So much for evolutionary history.
The Chen Wei analysis showed that around 11,000 years ago, the Syl-E strain was cultivated somewhere near present-day Israel, and that strain became the ancestor of almost all other strains we have today. About 8,000 years later that strain spread, and was cultivated in the Balkans. Quite quickly it spread to Iberia and the area which is modern-day France.
At about the same time the Syl-E2 strain was evolving in modern-day Georgia. However, because of the mountainous terrain, this strain was more isolated. It is interesting to note that the legend of Noah placed his vineyard near Mt. Ararat, in what is now north-east Turkey, which is close to Georgia. So, maybe, the legend of a drunken Noah has an element of truth in it after all.
It may seem a little odd that grapes were domesticated twice, in different areas, but that is hardly unheard of in horticultural history. Or, perhaps, communications between these two areas was better than we think, and the word just spread from one area to the other.
The article I read about the origins of wine closed with the comment that, “The process may have been inadvertent. Perhaps they simply heard it through the grapevine.”
Personally, I much prefer the story of a drunken Noah, even if it did come from the bible and defies all this DNA research data. Chen Wei’s research project may not answer all the questions around the origins of wine, but it has added some fascinating insights into the beginnings of one of the world’s favorite pastimes.