Bubbles and baby food At the world's oldest known winery, neolithic happy hour meant sparkling wine, child sacrifice, and cannibalism

The cave complex at Areni, Armenia houses the world’s oldest known winery.

ARENI, ARMENIA.  As caves go it’s not the sort to attract attention. There are no souvenir shops on the approach and no dramatic lighting within intended to highlight the kind of fantastic calcified structures that are so beloved of spelunker-wannabe tourists. There is only a vertical opening like a nasty unhealed wound in this ancient rock face in the mountains of southeast Armenia not far from the border with Iran.

The otherwise nondescript cave made big news, however, in 2011 when a team of archaeologists led by Professor Boris Gasparyan, co-director of the Armenian Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology, announced tht they had discoved in it the remnants of a winemaking facility dating back more than 6,000 years.

I knew about the cave and had written something about it in 2012, so was amazed when the opportunity came to visit it. I was even more thrilled to discover that our guide that day would be Professor Gasparyan himself.

To get an idea of the antiquity of the site, remember that in the fifth millennium BCE we are in the late neolithic era,  still deep in pre-history, several thousand years from the invention of writing or of cities or of the kind of civilization that the discovery and development of agriculture would one day make possible.

In this period we can imagine that in some places at least, once-mobile bands of hunter-gatherers had settled down to practice a kind of proto-farming made possible in part by the development of pottery technology.  Waterproof fired ceramic vessels meant grain could be safely stored from one harvest to the next and seed-stock preserved – but it also meant that fruit fermentations could be controlled and the resulting wine stored and even matured with later consumption in mind.  [See my post on the container revolution here]

Dr. Boris Gasparyan directed the excavation of the site.

There’s  plenty of material available online about the cave and its contents, so I won’t rehearse that here. In its eagerness to make the story relevant for the average reader most press coverage of the site overlooks what is surely the most interesting aspect the find: that the origins of wine appear to have no connection whatever to gastronomy.  

The cave is not fully excavated (and will not be in our lifetimes for reasons I will explain later)  but one of the first things that strikes the visitor to the site is its small size.  This was clearly not a facility built with a view to making significant volumes of wine (see photo below).   As Dr. G explained to our rather horrified group, the so-called winery was actually a site for the performance of fertility rituals aimed at ensuring that the cycle of agricultural activity (growth, ripening, harvest) would be repeated for another year.

Horrifying because analysis of the pottery vats reveal that children were sacrificed here, their blood added to the pots of fermenting juice, which was then consumed by the community – or perhaps segments of it.  Long, hollow reeds found at the bottom of several vats indicate that the new wine would have been sucked out soda fountain fashion via straws, perhaps while it was still fermenting.  In other words, while it was still alive with CO2 gas.  Sparkling wine, it seems, did not have to wait for the widow Clicquot.

Pottery vessels at the winery contained traces of wine and human remains. The string marks off one square meter of area.

Dr. G had lots to say about the fact that wine appears to have originated as an important element in neolithic fertility rites and not primarily as an accompaniment to food.  Wine’s original, neolithic meanings persist in Christian rites, such as the mass, he noted, where blood and wine are both closely related and magically interchanged.

As for the children, an analysis of their remains indicates that they were prepared for their deaths by being fed a special diet – an element with echoes in European fairy tale narratives that speak of witches fattening kidnapped children before baking them in an oven.  In one, asked to present his finger as a way for the blind witch to determine whether he was fat enough to cook offered instead a chicken bone – a clever trick that bought him enough time to eventually make his escape.

There’s very likely much more to be discovered in the cave, but by virtue of an international convention among archaeologists 30% of the site must be left unexplored. The idea is that since the technology for conducting these excavations is advancing at a rapid rate, it’s a better idea to leave some areas in virgin condition for a future generation of scientists to apply themselves to . . .  and perhaps uncover fresh horrors.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at stephenmeuse@icloud.com

Farewell to the ladybugs If organic and biodynamic certification doesn't guarantee good wine or responsible agriculture, what does?


Previously, the Cambridge Formaggio Kitchen wine department took care to identify the wines on its shelves that were made from organically or biodynamically farmed grapes and with no — or minimal — applications of sulfur.  We used little ladybug icons to set them apart.  It seemed like a reasonable step to take, since a significant subset of our clientele expresses a preference for wines made this way.

But there were some drawbacks to this approach — primarily, the implication that wines that couldn’t flash a ladybug badge were somehow of a second order of quality or moral standing.  One can imagine the line of thinking this might initiate: If they’re not farming organically, what must be going on in those vineyards?  Routine and frequent applications of chemical fertilizers?  Pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides sprayed on a fixed schedule whether vines are actually threatened or not?  

The fact is that we don’t sell any wine that can be described this way.

The choices made by conscientious wine growers are conditioned by durable facts on the ground,  the vagaries of the vintage,  and the style of wine that is in view.  Durable facts on the ground include, for example, whether the climate is dry or damp, whether the vineyard has a good flow of air, how pervasive mildews may be.  In places like sunny, dry Sicily, prevailing conditions make organic agriculture relatively easy to accomplish.  In cool, damp Bordeaux or almost anywhere in the U.S. east of the Mississippi, it can require heroic efforts.

Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.  And from year to year the degree to which winegrowers are challenged by nature can vary wildly.  For many smaller-scale and family operations (the most numerous kind on our shelves),  capital reserves that would buffer a calamitous vintage (never mind several in a row) simply don’t exist.  In the face of a genuine emergency it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect a family to lose the income from an entire vintage rather than make a reluctant, minimally appropriate, and temporary resort to a chemical remedy.

Finally, while it seems irrefutable that (all things being equal) organic methods are always to be preferred over conventional means,  it’s also true that without judicious applications of sulfur at harvest and during vinification,  some styles of wine simply couldn’t be made.

As a recent experience with an unsulfured German riesling proved,  the elegant, pristine fruit and racy acids for which these wines are known aren’t achievable without a contribution from an antioxidant agent.  We may begin to see some wines made this way — and they may be appealing in their own way — but they will be a different German riesling than the one the world has come to know and appreciate.

In chatting with our guests about issues related to agricultural responsibility, we want to remind them that while transitioning toward,  practicing, or being certified as organic or biodynamic provides some assurance of responsible behavior,  it can’t guarantee it.  Nor do natural approaches to farming and winemaking necessarily produce excellent wine.

In light of this, a winemaker’s decision not to practice organics with perfect consistency shouldn’t lead one to the conclusion that his approach is therefore irresponsible.  The situation is rarely so starkly binary and in any case  decisions of this kind are better left to the folks who are on-site and who have skin in the game.

For these reasons (and some others), we’ve decided not to routinely single out wines for special note because of the way the fruit is farmed,  although this continues to be an issue we are careful to inquire about before we decide something deserves a place on our shelves.

Beset as we are by ever more extravagant claims for wine that is pure, cosmically-attuned, and more innocent than Adam and Eve before the Fall, it’s worth remembering the words of iconic 18th century libertine, bon viveur, and memoirist Giacomo Casanova, who knew a thing or two about wine and the many uses it could be put to:

You stupid fellow, how can you ever be certain of the purity of wine unless you have made it yourself?

We might choose to put it a bit more politely,  but we agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment.  In the end, the only way to guarantee that our wine is responsibly produced is to deal only with responsible producers.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at stephenmeuse@icloud.com 

Arf! How winemaking resembles dog breeding

Border Collies during the breed judging at the 2007 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

It’s a provocative question but not a facetious one.  The thought came to me while having lunch recently with an old friend who was instrumental in making two once-celebrated Boston area restos destinations for wine enthusiasts — the waterfront’s Anthony’s Pier 4 and Newton’s Pillar House — more than forty years ago.

The subject was some Chablis that my Formaggio Kitchen colleague James Hull and I tasted earlier in the day from Jean-Marc Brocard. Being the incorrigibly old school kind of guy he is, Bernie groused that not enough Chablis today tastes like Chablis.  When I explained that I thought this Chablis did indeed taste like Chablis he seemed pleased.  For him, the sine qua non of wine quality is that it taste like what it is.

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Sweetening the pot Conjectures on the origins of sugary wine

In the passito process grapes are left to dry, concentrating their natural sugars. Credit: Marco Fon

I recently recorded a spot for America’s Test Kitchen Radio on sweet wines.  It didn’t feel that successful frankly, but as often happens the effort wasn’t without its compensations.  It came in the form of a new idea – and possibly some insight – about how sweet wines may have come about.

Nothing actually scientific or historical here, I’m afraid – most of what follows is strictly conjectural.

Evolutionary biologists tell us that our distant hominin ancestors came down from the trees already addicted to the sweet taste of ripe fruit. Grapes, having the highest load of sugars of any fruit were thus instantly attractive to us wherever we found them.

What a thrill when we first learned that those sugars would spontaneously ferment, giving birth – under the right conditions — to that marvelous, mood-altering substance: alcohol.  Hurrah!

Now imagine the disappointment which must have followed with shocking immediacy when we realized the cost. All that dreamy sweetness that attracted us to grapes in the first place was used up in generating  alcohol. Boo! Hiss!

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Confessions of a shelf talker How is a wine defined?

A chat with Julia Hallman, general manager at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge this week about the shelf talkers that I had been busy rewriting.  The time between taking the old ones down and putting the new ones up gave me a chance to see what the response of our clientele would be to their temporary disappearance.  The result of our little experiment: shoppers really do rely on them.

So now the question becomes what these signlets should say. ThereIMG_2078‘s not a lot of space to work on business card size tags (example at left).  Julia noted that based on what she had been hearing constituent grape variety/varieties are the most sought-after data.  This started me down a road I’ve trudged before: just what is it consumers are thinking when they ask “What kind of wine is this?”

It’s a question that has its origin in what I have called elsewhere the fog of wine: that disturbing combine of mystery, doubt, and anxiety all of us feel at one time or another as we try to find our way through the thickets of place names, soil types, cultivars, and flavor profiles wine confronts us with.

Though it seems natural enough now, clearing the fog by focusing on grape varietals is a relatively recent phenomenon. The likely reason it took so long: the wine industry’s deep, historic aversion to transparency.  For centuries wine was distributed via brokers and negociants whose business it was to blend stocks of wine into saleable condition while completely obscuring the process by which they accomplished this.

Continue reading Confessions of a shelf talker How is a wine defined?