W is for Wine

Silk Road specialties, from Pressfood.org.

I’ve heard that you need to age wine, but isn’t 8000 years a little over the top?

They have found the oldest wine vessels in history, and they are from Georgia, near the Southern Caucasus. Were they on the Silk Road? Or did grape wine come from China? How do they know it was grape wine anyway? And what else did they drink, when they didn’t have grapes? Plus, what about the apples and melons?

Today, it’s all about Silk Road Food and Drink, especially Drink.

Vitis vinifera

As it happens, I don’t drink alcohol, but please don’t hold that against me. I can certainly discuss alcohol with the best of them, especially when it involves archaeology. I was trying to look up Silk Road wine information which, the other day, told me that many people drank non-grape wines made from honey, mare’s milk, and other fermented carbohydrates. At least that’s what I remember. But there is a Silk Road winery (or more than one) and so all I could see today were ads for that wine. Feel free to do a brisk little Google search for “Silk Road Wine” on your own.

The reason that Georgia–and that means the country over in Asia near the Silk Road not the U.S. state–the reason that Georgia was trumpeting its wines is because archeologists dug up some big ol’ wine jars. These jars, called qevri or khevri, definitely date back to the Neolithic as far as 6,000–5,800 BCE. Lead researcher Patrick McGovern and the team were careful to look at dating the pottery, dating the site, and establishing the appearance of the right combination of acids that represent fermented grapes. They also found grape pollen, starch, and skin remains that sealed the deal. Eight-thousand-year-old grapes in Georgia!

Georgia wasn’t precisely one of the main routes on the Silk Road because of its mountainous terrain. The region is squeezed between the Caspian to its east and the Black Sea to its right. The dots near Tbilisi show where the archaeological sites are found. If you recall all maps from my previous posts, Transoxiana is to the southeast, where the Oxus and the Jaxartes flow “down” from the Hindu Kush mountains to the Aral and the Caspian Sea plains. A road through mountains up to Tbilisi here would have to go around a bit. But these are intrepid travelers, and if there’s wine to be brought, they would most certainly do it.

Georgia map of archeology finds, PNAS.org.

The Chinese, whose civilization was further along than others in the earliest days, created their own grape vini and viticulture industry. Vini, viti, vici? (Sorry, not sorry.) One source suggests that the Chinese symbol for wine derives from the Georgian wine jugs. Meanwhile, Patrick McGovern has been a busy guy because he also did some scholarly analysis showing that Chinese wine production also goes back to 7000 BCE.

The Chinese created alcoholic drinks which were mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey, and fruit (hawthorn fruit and/or grape). It was originally thought to have come out of Mesopotamia or perhaps Egypt, but McGovern and others now think that other than the Georgian connection, most of the Chinese cultivation was done on their own.

But, of course, the Chinese traveled to their west quite a bit, driving down the road with their silk and other goods. So some of their techniques might have also traveled down the road as well.

Not Just Grapes

Of course, fermentation can apply to plenty of other liquids as well. Rice can turn into wine. One of the biggest other early sources of alcohol was honey, which used to make mead.

Bees are pretty prevalent, so honey was, too, and it was thought that even the Paleolithic dudes might have been able to figure out how to ferment honey back in the day. So there are claims that mead is the oldest alcoholic drink.

Medieval mead drinker, @12th c., Peter Verelt.

Yet the “oldest” suggests themselves circle back to China and that 7000 BCE date, which each of these studies seems to hover around. Must have been something in the water during that millennium.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that the Mongolian nomads drank kumis, which is fermented mare’s milk. I have a little hard time with this conceptually because the Mongols were fairly lactose-intolerant so they didn’t drink the mare’s milk straight. (I thought they did but apparently not). They would churn the milk a little, thus kumis is fermented through a churning and airing process which acidifies it and makes it mildly alcoholic.

Kumis, wikipedia.

The nomads would also do some heavy duty churning and drying of mare’s milk to make cheese curds, which they could carry in the saddle, like jerky. Now, a meal of kumis and curds might sound vile, but you go ride out on the Taklamakan Desert for a few days where there is no water and see how good they might taste then.

The Soviet Union in the 1980s supposedly tried to create a large scale mare milking operation. Keeping in mind that mares are taller, faster, and have much smaller udders than cows, you can well imagine that Rinchingiin Indra, writing about Mongolian dairying, would say: “It takes considerable skill to milk a mare.”

I bet it does! Watch out for that back hoof!

Silk Road Originals

Meanwhile, wine wasn’t the only crop famous for originating in the central Asian basins. Figs and dates certainly were grown across the Mediterranean and throughout the Middle East. Samarkand was well known for its melons, with land-race and musk melon varieties being highly prized. Almonds and apricots likely originated in the Iranian plateau.

And here’s the big one: Apples

Apples were domesticated along the routes of the Silk Road. The origins for the main wild population of apples is in southeastern Kazakhstan; but the modern apple is a hybrid of several wild apple species, resulting from the spread of the fruit tree along the ancient trade routes.

According to the University of California Press blog
Apples from Uzbekhistan i.e. Transoxiana. UCPress blog

The next time you think, “American as apple pie,” you will have to think … er… as “Transoxianic as apple pie.”

Kind of a mouthful. Maybe we can just say khevri and take a drink!

2 Replies to “W is for Wine”

  1. Intriguing that wild apples were along the Silk Road; reminiscent of Johnny Appleseed (traveling and planting) in America.

  2. I hadn’t thought of that! I wonder if there was a Giovanni Appleseed across the Silk Road? Thanks for the comment!

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