What 3,700-Year-Old Wine Tasted Like

Archaeologists reveal the "sweet, strong" flavor of ancient booze, and wonder whether they might be able to recreate it.
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These 3,700-year-old jars were discovered in a palatial wine cellar in northern Israel in July 2013. (Eric H. Cline, George Washington University, via the Wall Street Journal)

Excavating a ruined palace in Tel Kabri, Israel, this summer, a group of archaeologists made a discovery: an old wine cellar. A very old wine cellar. A cellar they estimate—according to findings presented today at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Researchto be some 3,700 years old. Within the cellar, over a period of six weeks, the team found 40 wine jugs, each one just over three feet tall.

The liquid contents of the jars, alas, have not survived. So how did the researchers know they were wine jugs, and not some other vessel? The team, composed of scientists from George Washington University, Brandeis University, and Tel Aviv University (and who, it's worth noting, have yet to publish their findings in a peer-reviewed journal) analyzed the organic residues trapped in the pores of the jars. Emphasizing pottery fragments collected from the bases of the jars, which would have been guaranteed to have had contact with whatever was stored inside them, the team analyzed the chemical components of the residues. They found, among other things, tartaric acid, which is a key component in grapes. They found traces of other compounds, too, suggesting ingredients that would have been added to the wine—among them honey, mint, and other herbs.

So ... minty wine? Herby wine? Really, really well-aged wine? What exactly would that have tasted like? 

"Sweet, strong and medicinal," the Wall Street Journal says—and "certainly not your average Beaujolais." The herbaceous booze was, in fact, probably much more akin to cough syrup (or maybe to cough syrup laced with sherry) than it would be to our current, smooth-drinking concoctions. The combination of grape with honey and herbs, the researchers note, makes the Kabri wines similar in makeup to wines that were drunk, seemingly for medicinal purposes, for 2,000 years in ancient Egypt. (The Kabri wines would have been both white and red, researchers told the Journal.) And those wines, in turn, match textual descriptions of the wines of Mesopotamia

So, wait. We have the chemical residue of the ancient wine. We know, basically, what would have been added to the grapes to make the wine more flavorful and, perhaps, medicinal. Could we recreate the wine for ourselves?

Possibly! Just before concluding this summer's excavation, the Journal notes, the archaeologists discovered two doors leading out of the wine cellar. Those may end up leading to more cellars—and, with them, to more millennia-old wine. Or, at least, more data about the millennia-old wine. And "with enough data," the researchers said, recreating the wine for ourselves could be within our reach. Bottoms up. 

The Wall Street Journal via Gizmodo

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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