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Italian Wine-making: Older and More Mysterious


Italian wine-making is far older than previously thought, although not quite as ancient as found in a recent exhibition on Georgia (see Exhibition: Ancient Roots of Wine-making in Georgia, Committee for Cultural Policy, August 10, 2017). Researchers at the University of Southern Florida in Tampa have analyzed the residue from Copper Age jars from in a cave discovered in Agrigento in Sicily in 2012. Their conclusions pushed back the earliest date of Italian wine-making to 3,000 years earlier than previously known – to a time within the 4th millennium B.C.

Although still not the oldest evidence that humans consumed the fermented juice of the fruit of the vine – that distinction belongs to the region of ancient Georgia in the 6th millennium – the discovery significantly changes the narrative of actual wine consumption in Italy.

Previous analysis of ancient grape seeds had been used as the basis to date wine-making in Italy to around 1300 to 1100 B.C.E. The new dates are based upon an analysis of the residue remaining in pottery jars found in a limestone cave complex on Monte Kronio, near the fishing harbor of Sciacca on Sicily’s southwest coast.

Davide Tanasi of the University of South Florida in Tampa, and a team of researchers reported the discovery in a manuscript accepted for publication (1) in the Microchemical Journal. The dating of the use of the cave system and of the pottery jars was known to be in the 4th Millennium. To determine the identity of the organic residue in the jars, researchers took five samples and, through a complex series of tests, found the tartaric acid and its sodium salt that occur with the fermentation of grapes during the wine-making process.

Exactly what the jars of wine were doing in a cave on Monte Kronio remains a mystery. Some researchers speculate that the jars of wine were part of an offering to the local deities, as the cave’s area is associated with ancient ritual. As Davide Tanasi told Zamira Rahim at CNN, “The cave site of Monte Kronio is also a cult place used for religious practices from prehistory to Classical times.”

(After paying tribute to two ancient forms of intoxicating drink in recent issues, CCP will follow up next month with a description of an ancient Central Asian cocktail of milk, ephedra, hashish, and opiates. Kids, don’t try this at home.)

1) Tanasi, Davide & Greco, Enrico & Di Tullio, Valeria & Capitani, Donatella & Gullì, Domenica & Ciliberto, Enrico. (2017). 1 H- 1 H NMR 2D-TOCSY, ATR FT-IR and SEM-EDX for the identification of organic residues on Sicilian prehistoric pottery. Microchemical Journal. 135. 140-147. 10.1016/j.microc.2017.08.010.

Images: Davide Tanasi, University of South Florida, Monte Kronio, Agrigento, Sicily.

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