Great new wines from ancient lands

WINE wears its history proudly.

Its spread westward across Europe is commemorated in places such as Minervois in the Languedoc — named for Minerva, goddess of wisdom, the area was first planted by the Romans some 2,500 years ago.

But that’s only half the story. The ancient Romans and Greeks had in turn learned their taste for wine and the know-how to make it from civilisations further to the east — from Phoenicians in the eastern Mediterranean.

And they in turn had learnt the secret of wine from the people of what’s now regarded as the first source of wine as we know it — the Caucasus region, equating to present day Armenia and Georgia.

This ancient past of the wine in your glass is highlighted by two fascinating nuggets that cropped up in the media this week — a thought-provoking radio programme about the wineries of Lebanon, and news of a startling archaeological find in Armenia.

The radio programme, Vines on the Front Line, is very much set in the present and the recent past of Lebanon, introducing a number of the most significant wine makers in the country. Presenter Jeremy Vine visits Chateau Ksara, an ancient vineyard which was revitalised by the Jesuits who owned the property in the 1850s; and introduces brothers Sami and Ramzy Ghosn who founded Massaya in the mid-’90s.

This recent past is of course bound up closely with the wave after wave of conflict that have as yet failed to tear the country apart but which have visited unbearable pain to its people. Even during its relatively stable periods, peace has at best been uneasy. And yet the people, winemakers and all, persist in the face of the real threat of kidnapping and intercommunal violence.

But as presenter Jeremy Bowen says, we ought to associate Lebanon as much with wine as with war. For all the pain of recent decades of conflict in the region, it has enjoyed centuries and even millennia of civilisation.

But this week’s other breaking news from the ancient world makes the Phoenicians look like a Johnny-come-lately by comparison.

An archaeological find has had food history scrambling to reset their calendars, as it revealed a highly-developed winemaking culture far earlier than might ever have been expected. In a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, researchers describe how they broke into a cave which had been sealed by rockfalls, to discover wine-making apparatus complete with press, vats (which contained residues of a dry red wine), vines, seeds, and even a drinking vessel. The DNA of the grapes prove them to be of the vitis vinifera species, the vine that lies behind all wine as we know it. This fully-functioning winery dates back approximately 6,000 years, by far the most ancient yet to be discovered.

In terms of the prehistory of the wine in our glass, the find is a sort of missing link. Dr Patrick McGovern, a senior scientist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum said that the find fits in with the known history of grape domestication some 1,000 years earlier — as well as the subsequent spread of the technology south through Phoenicia and into the Mediterranean.

This find may bring to mind another archaeological breakthrough in Armenia just last September when details emerged of the earliest intact shoe ever found — a size 37 leather lace-up number, looking remarkably good for lying around for 5,500 years.

* To celebrate, today’s recommended wines are all from Phoenicia and the Caucasus (or Lebanon and Georgia for younger readers). I’m recommending each only because I think it’s an interesting and good value wine.

Having said that, there is something delightful about uncorking our wine and raising a glass to these ancient people who appreciated the value of such basic comforts as a good pair of shoes and a decent glass of wine.

* You can listen to Vines on the Front Line on BBC Radio 4 online until next Wednesday morning. Just go to www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer and search for “vines”. Or follow the direct link to the programme from www.blakecreedon.wordpress.com.

* I bought today’s wines from Georgia at The Abbot Ale House, Coburg Street, Cork, where they are on special offer of any two for €15.

Wines from the Teliani Valley, Georgia (www.telianivalley.com) are available from fresh retail shops and from many stocking goods from Russia and former Soviet union including Merkury in Tralee and Killarney; Vejas, Back in the USSR and Baltika in Cork city and county; and the Euroshoper, Visla, Baltika and Litas stores in Dublin and elsewhere.

Wines from Massaya, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon (www.massaya.com) are available through James Nichols Wines on www.jnwines.ie.

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