Italians taught French wine-making

Archaeology suggests Etruscans brought the grape to Gaul

A limestone platform (left) from a site in southern France resembles one on a Greek vase (arrow) in a scene documenting the wine-making process. 

From left: Courtesy of Michel Py, © l'Unité de Fouilles et de Recherches Archéologiques de Lattes; photograph: P. Neckermann, redrawn and adapted by Benjamin Luley

French winemakers learned their art after developing a taste for Italian wines, a new study suggests.

Archaeologists have found traces of grapes on a stone platform dated to 425 to 400 B.C. from a site in southern France. The traces suggest that people used the platform for stomping on the fruit to make wine. The researchers also found wine traces at the same site in older, imported amphorae, the pottery shipping containers of the ancient Mediterranean.

The wine press provides the earliest molecular evidence for wine-making in France and the traces in the amphorae support the idea that local wine-making was inspired by trade with Etruscans from Italy, researchers report June 3 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

People first made wine around 6,000 years ago in the mountains of Iran, Armenia and Georgia. Seafaring traders, including Canaanites, Phoenicians, Greeks and Etruscans, then spread across the Mediterranean with the domesticated grape vine, wine-making techniques and a culture of wine drinking.

Archaeologists think the first wine industries in France started in the sixth century B.C., but did not have chemical evidence for ancient wine production.

So Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and colleagues analyzed samples from merchant quarters in the ancient French port of Lattara, south of Montpellier, where researchers previously found grape seeds. The samples came from Etruscan amphorae dated to around 525 to 475 B.C.

Using highly sensitive chemical analysis, the team detected tartaric acid — a molecular fingerprint of grapes — in the samples. They also found that the wine contained aromatic herbs such as rosemary and basil, as well as pine resin. The winemakers may have added resin for medicinal reasons or as a preservative.

The French taste for imported wine eventually led to a local industry, McGovern and his colleagues think. The team tested a limestone platform from a fifth century B.C. courtyard. The platform has a spout, resembles wine presses depicted on Greek vases and could have held a basket in which a person stomped on grapes.

The researchers detected tartaric acid on the platform, confirming that it was used to make wine.

Because wine played such a central role in the religion, politics, medicine and art of the ancient world, the researchers’ work is important, says Brendan Foley, an archaeologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachsetts. “They are not merely tracing the introduction of an agricultural product in Italy and France,” he says. “They are discovering a cornerstone of Western civilization.”

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