Updated: Feb 16, 2021
Georgians love to claim that wine was created in Georgia. There are even theories that the Indo-European (Romance, Germanic, and Slavic, and Semetic languages) words for wine and vine come from the Georgian word for wine--ღვინო ghvino--only without the gluttoral gh sound. Georgia, with over 1.8 million years of human inhabitants including urban settlements dating back to the Bronze Age, being located on the periphery of Mesopotamia, and having over 500 indegineous species of grapes, has a very plausible assertion, but how probable is it?
Where: Gadachrili Gora, Kvemo Kartli, 40 km south-southwest of Tbilisi
When: 5,900-5,200 BCE
Gadachrili Gora is a small archeological site located in Kvemo Kartli, in the present-day village of Imiri, just south of Marneuli. Human inhabitation of Gadachrili Gora starts in the Neolithic period, during the so-called “Shulaveri-Shomutepe Culture.” This was a small civilization which inhabited the Mtkvari River valley between Tbilisi, Georgia, and Aghstafa, Azerbaijan.
Digs at Gadachrili Gora were conducted from 2014 to 2017, with archeologists from the Georgian National Museum, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Toronto, along with scientists and researchers from universities in France, Italy, Denmark, and Israel.
Out of all of the fruits available, why did humans use grapes to ferment? After all, humans were growing cereals and grains since 10,000 BCE, and fermenting them for nearly as long. Meanwhile, it takes a minimum of three years for a grapevine to bear fruit, meaning that grapes would have been a rarer product than grains, such as barley and wheat.
The first answer to this question wouldn’t have been obvious to our Neolithic predecessors: that domesticated grapes are hermaphroditic. This means that both the male and female elements of a grape are found in each flower, making grape fertilization relatively easy. Additionally, bead and beer making require a form of controlled heat--an oven/kiln--for the best results, while wine production does not. In fact, cool places, such as caves and underground jars, are some of the best conditions for winemaking. Finally, grapes are stored not only by drying them, but also by turning them into a syrup or concentrate.
A Contested Claim
The earliest evidence for grape wine cultivation was from the Neolithic village of Hajji Firuz Tepe, which is located in the Zagros Mountains of Iran, which dates to 5,400-5,000 BCE. A total of six jars, each with a volume of around 9 liters/2.5 gallons, had tartaric acid--a prominent element found in grape wine production--found in them. The jars found at the Iranian site were found partly buried in the ground, similar to Georgian ქვევრი kvevri. Meanwhile, Roman and Byzantine sources place Georgian kvevri wine making to the eight to seventh centuries BCE. This method of wine making was commonplace throughout the Mediterranean and Near Eastern areas, with pristine examples coming from Pompeii. In fact, no such buried pottery like those found in Hajji Firuz Tepe (Iran) and Areni/Aratashen (Armenai), including kvevri, have been found in Georgia between the Neolithic period to the Iron Age.
Furthermore, a site in Aratashen, Armenia, near Yerevan, dating to the 5th millennium BCE has similar pottery found at Hajji Firuz Tepe along with grape seeds, indicating grape domestication at the site. Gadachrili Gora, however, lacks similar archeobotanical evidence, such as seeds, grapevine wood, or grape skin fragments, which would be used to indicate grape domestication, posing a problem for the Georgian claim to be the birthplace of wine.
In 2010, numerous buried jars were found in caves in Areni, a mountainous region of Armenia. Radiocarbon dating of grapevine wood places these jars at around 4,000 BCE. Not only was grapevine wood found at the site, but so were remnants of tartaric acid and the red pigment, malvidin, which is strong evidence of wine making.
Archeologists who studied the Gadachrili Gora site widened their investigation to include grape pollen, and found that grape pollen was abundant in pottery fragments from the Neolithic Gadachrili Gora site. Large quantities of grape pollen, thought to be the remains of grape flowers, imply that grapes once grew near, or even at Gadachrili Gora. Even today, the nearest wild grapevines are located only a few kilometers from the site. An analysis of starches found on both grinders and jar fragments at Gadachrili Gora further confirmed the belief that grape cultivation for the purpose of winemaking regularly occurred.
One final piece of evidence to support Georgia’s claim came from the exterior of the pottery fragments themselves. When boiling down grapes to make a concentrate/syrup, pottery fragments should have exterior burns due to their being exposed to fire, however, none of the pottery fragments from Gadachrili Gora have burns, indicating that the grape liquid stored in them was not boiled down, but most likely left to sit--a process which would ultimately lead to fermentation.
The evidence at Gadachrili Gora supports the theory that Georgia is, indeed, the birthplace of wine. Georgia lies in the natural habitat of wild grapes, the first and most obvious prerequisite for wine production, chemical evidence from pottery fragments not only indicate that byproducts of wine, mostly in the form of tartaric acid, date back 8,000 years, but that grape cultivation for the purpose of wine production occurred, and natural evidence such as the presence of ancient pollen supports that grapes were bountiful in the immediate vicinity of Gadachrili Gora.