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Where Were the Very First Grapevines?

By Karen MacNeil
June 16, 2016

Turkey may not have as much cachet as Bordeaux, but Anatolia in southern Turkey is where the world’s first grapevines were probably grown. In Anatolia—part of the historic Fertile Crescent—vines were grown and harvested to make wine as long ago as 8,000 B.C. according to research conducted by Swiss grape geneticist Dr. José Vouillamoz, of the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, and Dr. Patrick McGovern, Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia.

The scientists ascertained the place where grapes were first domesticated by comparing the DNA sequences of cultivated grapevines with the DNA sequences of wild grapevines all over the world. The greatest similarities between the two were found in wild grapevines growing in Anatolia, though areas of Iran, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan also tell tales of early domestication and wine drinking. Clay jars used to store and age wine have been found in all of these areas, some dating to 5,400 B.C.

Wild grapevines were abundant in Anatolia around the same time that Stone Age farmers settled into villages and domesticated wild grains. Vouillamoz and McGovern hypothesize that these early Anatolians may have collected the berries from the vines they found growing freely along the ground and high up into trees. When they eventually discovered that the fermented juice of these wild grapes was delicious (not to mention euphorically mind-altering), the farmers appear to have begun planting wild grapevines alongside their grains. Ten thousand years later, the wines we sip are distant descendants of these early vines.

And a final fascinating fact revealed by the recent research: many popular grape varieties are more closely related than previously thought. For example, dense, peppery syrah is the unexpected great-grandchild of subtle, delicate pinot noir. And though it makes only a neutral-tasting quaffing wine, gouais blanc (the surprising Casanova of wine grapes), is the parent of more than 80 other grape varieties, including chardonnay, riesling and gamay.