Is Georgia truly the Cradle of Wine?

Of course Cradle of Wine is really a metaphor, and thus Georgia’s claim to the title is difficult to confirm or deny. But I think to begin to answer the question, we need to unpick two strands of evidence: the archaeology, and the grapevine DNA.

I have already written about the archaeological studies, and as far as I know there have been no major discoveries since then, so I will summarise them only briefly here. The oldest archaeological evidence of winemaking was found in what is currently now Georgia, and dates back 8,000 years. Also there is other very old evidence not so far away, in Armenia and northern Iran, so taken together, current indications are that winemaking originates in that general region. But of course Georgia did not exist back then. And who knows when even older archaeology might come to light? Over-zealous marketers might also like to note that the clay vessels from 8,000 years ago do not particularly look like qvevri, and the archaeological site was not in Kakheti, the current main winemaking region of Georgia, as is sometimes claimed or implied.

Limited as it is, the archaeological evidence is pretty strong. However, at the time there were various DNA studies that added weight to the general idea that winemaking started in the South Caucasus and spread out from there. I also referred to that DNA evidence in my earlier post. Again to summarise briefly, it seemed the greatest genetic variation in domesticated wine grapes was in the South Caucasus, which indicated that they had existed there longer than anywhere else. Also, wine grapes in Europe were genetically closer to wild grapes in the South Caucasus than they were to the local European wild grapes.

However, the DNA evidence mentioned above has been upturned by a large scale study published around a year ago. This study concludes that there were two independent grapevine domestication events around 11,000 years ago: one in the South Caucasus, and one in the Levant. In the South Caucasus the grapevines were more suited to winemaking, and in the Levant to the production of table grapes. Figure taken from Dual domestications and origin of traits in grapevine evolution, Dong et al., Science 379, 892–901 (2023)However, it was the domesticated grapevine stock from the Levant that spread around the Mediterranean and throughout Europe, where it was crossed with local wild grapevines to create the well-known varieties we use in winemaking today. The grapevines from the South Caucasus domestication event spread to a much more limited extent, up into what is now Russia, and around the north of the Black Sea as far as central Europe.Figure taken from Dual domestications and origin of traits in grapevine evolution, Dong et al., Science 379, 892–901 (2023)So for people that care about these things, assuming that winemaking did start in Georgia, or at least the South Caucasus, the story about how it spread throughout Europe is not as straightforward as it used to be. Did it perhaps spread from Georgia to the Levant, and then to Europe via the Mediterranean, which means that the Georgian varieties did not spread in the same direction as the winemaking? Or did it perhaps pop-up independently in the Levant and/or in Europe? If started independently elsewhere, could Georgia still claim to be the “Cradle of Wine”?

Also we might ask how the new DNA findings could affect the perception of Georgian grape varieties. Is it looked on less favourably because the link with the now famous international varieties is broken, or is it enhanced because the Georgian varieties could now be seen to be a stronger USP (unique selling point), because they are more distinctive? Or maybe Georgian wine marketers are just going to stick their heads in the sand, and pretend the DNA evidence does not exist? So far, one year on from the publication of the research, it looks like they’re taking the head-in-the-sand approach. In any case, the archaeology is always going to make a better story than DNA research.

As a lover of both wine and Georgia, I want its wine to be effectively marketed so it can be enjoyed more widely, and I find the history of wine a fascinating subject. But truthfully, the history of how winemaking and grapevines spread across Europe does not at all affect my enjoyment of Georgian wine. What does though, however irrational it might be, is the idea that winemaking has an unbroken tradition within Georgia that spans several thousand years. That in itself is a great USP.

Author: Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

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