Scientists have discovered evidence of the world's earliest winemaking in Georgia, dating back to the origin of the practice to the Neolithic period around 6000 BC.
Previously, the earliest known chemical evidence of wine dated to 5400-5000 BC and was from an area in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.
Researchers from University of Toronto in Canada and Georgian National Museum found that the practice began hundreds of years earlier in the South Caucasus region on the border of Eastern Europe and Western Asia.
Excavations have focused on two Early Ceramic Neolithic sites (6000-4500 BC) called Gadachrili Gora and Shulaveris Gora, about 50 kilometres south of the modern capital of Tbilisi.
Pottery fragments of ceramic jars recovered from the sites were collected and subsequently analysed by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania in the US to ascertain the nature of the residue preserved inside for several millennia.
The newest methods of chemical extraction confirmed tartaric acid, the fingerprint compound for grape and wine as well as three associated organic acids - malic, succinic and citric - in the residue recovered from eight large jars.
"We believe this is the oldest example of the domestication of a wild-growing Eurasian grapevine solely for the production of wine," said Stephen Batiuk, research associate at University of Toronto.
"The domesticated version of the fruit has more than 10,000 varieties of table and wine grapes worldwide," said Batiuk, co-author of the study published in the journal PNAS.
"Georgia is home to over 500 varieties for wine alone, suggesting that grapes have been domesticated and cross- breeding in the region for a very long time," he said.
The sites excavated are remnants of two villages that date back to the Neolithic period, which began around 15200 BC in parts of the Middle East and ended between 4500 and 2000 BC in other parts of the world.
The Neolithic period is characterised by a package of activities that include the beginning of farming, the domestication of animals, the development of crafts such as pottery and weaving, and the making of polished stone tools.
Scientists said that the combined archaeological, chemical, botanical, climatic and radiocarbon data provided by the analysis demonstrate that the Eurasian grapevine Vitis vinifera was abundant around the sites.
It grew under ideal environmental conditions in early Neolithic times, similar to premium wine-producing regions in Italy and southern France today.
"Our research suggests that one of the primary adaptations of the Neolithic way of life as it spread to Caucasia was viniculture," said Batiuk.
"The domestication of the grape apparently led eventually led to the emergence of a wine culture in the region," he said.
Batiuk describes an ancient society in which the drinking and offering of wine penetrates and permeates nearly every aspect of life from medical practice to special celebrations, from birth to death, to everyday meals at which toasting is common.
"As a medicine, social lubricant, mind-altering substance, and highly valued commodity, wine became the focus of religious cults, pharmacopeias, cuisines, economics, and society throughout the ancient Near East," he said.
Batiuk cites ancient viniculture as a prime example of human ingenuity in developing horticulture, and creative uses for its byproducts.
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