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Was 4100 BC a Good Year? World's Oldest Winery Found

Jan 11, 2011 – 11:12 AM
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Lauren Frayer

Lauren Frayer Contributor

Wine lovers' quest for the perfect, full-bodied red is apparently older than anyone realized.

In a cave complex in Armenia, archaeologists from the University of California have unearthed what they believe is the world's oldest winery, from 6,100 years ago.

Inside the cave, Copper Age vintners are believed to have stomped grapes with their feet, then fermented the juice in huge clay vats, storing it in jars and then drinking it from cups carved from animal horns. That equipment, plus fossilized grape seeds and skins, was still buried there when UCLA archaeologists stumbled into the cave in 2007 and began years of careful digging.

Their findings were announced today by the National Geographic Society and published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

"For the first time, we have a complete archaeological picture of wine production dating back 6,100 years," UCLA archaeologist Gregory Areshian told National Geographic. "This is the earliest, most reliable evidence of wine production."

Even older evidence of wine drinking has been unearthed elsewhere -- wine bottles, cups and corks for instance -- but the Armenian cave is believed to be the oldest known wine-making facility.

A nearby village is still known for its local wine-making, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Nestled in mountains in Armenia's southeast corner, the site is also believed to have been a burial place, suggesting that early wine-making might have been related to funeral proceedings, or dedicated to the dead.

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"It shows a fairly large-scale operation, and it fits very well with the evidence that we already have about the tradition of making wine," Patrick McGovern, an archaeological chemist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, who wasn't involved in the Armenia dig, told The New York Times. Wine-making equipment has also been found in the tombs of ancient Egyptian pharaohs as well.

Areshian told the Times that at least eight bodies have been found in the wine-making cave, including a child. Mourners may have sipped wine to honor the dead or appease their spirits, and wine may also have been used to sprinkle on the graves as part of a ritual, he said.

The winery was discovered in the same complex of caves where archaeologists previously uncovered the world's oldest leather shoe, dating from 5,500 years ago. But the winery is even older -- suggesting early humans were making and drinking wine long before they even wore shoes.

Perhaps they had their priorities straight after all.
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