Archaeologists and chemists have combined their skills to determine that wine production in France may have started as early as 425 BC, inspired by wine imported from Italy.

Ancient pressing platform from Lattara, seen from above. Note the spout for drawing off a liquid. Image courtesy of Michel Py, © l'Unité de Fouilles et de Recherches Archéologiques de Lattes.

Ancient pressing platform from Lattara, seen from above. Note the spout for drawing off a liquid. Image courtesy of Michel Py, © l’Unité de Fouilles et de Recherches Archéologiques de Lattes.

When most people think of France, they think of good cheese and fine wine (and sometimes a terrible smell), but little is known about when and how winemaking arrived in France.  Now, using a range of chemical analysis techniques as well as traditional archaeological methods, Patrick McGovern from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, and colleagues have found evidence of wine manufacture in the coastal town of Lattara dating from around 400 BC.

Several clues pointed to this date. Archaeological evidence shows wine being imported in Etruscan amphora, a special type of container, since the 7th century BC, but there seems to be a dramatic decline in imports after around 500 BC – was home production killing the wine import market?

To find out, the researchers examined a site at Lattara (now Lattes), where there is abundant evidence of domestic grape growth.  Previous archaeological digs have discovered amphorae and a stone fruit press, as well as grape remains.  Samples from the amphorae and press were taken to determine if they had been in contact with wine, rather than the altogether more innocuous olive oil, which relies on similar manufacturing and storing processes.  These were then subjected to a battery of analysis techniques, including Fourier-transform infrared spectrometry (FT-IR) and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS).

The analysis of the amphorae showed the presence of tartaric acid, a signature of grapes, along with pine resins and evidence of other botanical additives such as rosemary, basil and time.  This supports the idea that resinated herbal wine (the ancestor of modern day retsina) was being imported from Italy at the time. More significant was the evidence of tartaric acid on the pressing platform, strongly suggesting that it was in use pressing grapes to make local wine as early as 425 BC.

The chemistry is a key chapter in this story, but this tale is not just about grapes and alcoholic drinks. The birth of viniculture in France marked a cultural shift – importing not just a product but plants, expertise, knowledge and culture.  The research itself also demonstrates the results achieved from the bringing together of two cultures – those of chemists and archaeologists.  According to the authors:

“Future biomolecular archaeologists will increasingly be called upon not only to identify biomarker compounds by ever more sensitive techniques, but also to correlate and assess their findings in light of ever more precise archaeological and archaeobotanical data.”

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