Tracing French wine to - Italy?

Patrick McGovern, a Penn archaeologist, has chemical evidence of Etruscan wine in vessels found in France.
Patrick McGovern, a Penn archaeologist, has chemical evidence of Etruscan wine in vessels found in France. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 05, 2013

It is well known that the French did not invent wine - no more than the Colombians invented coffee or the Italians discovered tomatoes - but they elevated it to a high art.

Now, after analyzing residue from a hunk of ancient limestone, a University of Pennsylvania scientist said Monday that he had found the earliest chemical evidence of le vin français.

The 2,400-year-old stone, apparently a pressing platform with a spout fashioned on one end, contained remnants of tartaric acid, a chemical found in grapes. The Penn scientist and colleagues also analyzed even older pottery vessels from the same site in coastal southern France, finding the telltale tartaric acid there as well.

These vessels - called amphorae, dated to about 500 B.C. - were of a specific type known to have been made by the Etruscans. So the French seem to have imported their first wines - mon Dieu! - from what is now Italy.

That takes nothing away from the rich history of French viniculture, said Penn's Patrick McGovern, lead author of the report on the findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"France is still the center of the world's wine culture," said McGovern, director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory at Penn's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

The white-bearded McGovern, who stopped shaving decades ago partly because his research took him to remote locations without hot water, is a renowned expert on the fermented beverages of ages past.

And he has helped bring some of them back to life. His collaborations with the Dogfish Head brewery, in Delaware, include a potent chocolate-based brew based on residues from ancient Honduran pottery.

The first grape wines are thought to have been made in the mountainous Near East, with the earliest chemical evidence from 5,400 B.C., in what is today Iran - though McGovern is currently studying some earlier samples from Georgia and Turkey.

Traders brought wine from there to Egypt, Greece, and eventually western Europe - in each case, with locals first importing the stuff and then learning to make it on their own, McGovern said.

The Etruscan vessels and the stone pressing platform that McGovern studied came from an archaeological site near the modern French town of Lattes, on the Mediterranean Sea. The chemical tartaric acid also can be found in other fruits, such as pomegranate, but there is no evidence of them at the site.

Plenty of grape seeds, on the other hand.

"We have the chemical, archaeological, and botanical information all coming together and making a coherent story for the first time," McGovern said.

Michael Dietler, a University of Chicago professor of anthropology, who has studied ancient wine, said the results of the new research were not surprising, given that there was little else that would have been contained in the distinctive pottery vessels.

In theory, the amphorae could have been used to store olive oil, but this is unlikely because the vessels were lined with a protective layer of pitch, which is soluble in olive oil, said Dietler, who was not involved with McGovern's research. He noted that likely wine vessels have been found from 100 years earlier in France, in what is now the city of Marseilles.

Yet the residues from the Lattes vessels are the first known chemical evidence, and to get it, McGovern had to use some powerful equipment. When his first tests were inconclusive, McGovern turned to Michael P. Callahan, a research physical scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Working with Karen E. Smith, a Pennsylvania State University graduate student, Callahan analyzed the samples with an ultraprecise technique called Orbitrap mass spectrometry, useful in teasing apart the contents of complex mixtures.

"It's really, really good at fishing a needle out of the haystack, basically," said Callahan, who uses the same method to study organic compounds in meteorites.

Et voilà! Tartaric acid. Also present in the amphorae was evidence of herbal additives such as rosemary, possibly indicating a medicinal use.

News of the findings was greeted with interest by prominent members of the Philadelphia wine scene.

Charlotte Calmels, co-owner of the hot French restaurant Bibou, said the long-ago vintners in her native land took an imported product and clearly raised it to another level.

"They tested different ways of making it, to make it more than just letting the grapes and sugar turn into alcohol," Calmels said. "I think the French have a very refined palate. . . . They were a bit more curious to see what else they could do."

Indeed, the history of French winemaking is replete with innovation - determining when to plant and harvest grapes, for example, and in which soil. Cistercian monks in the Burgundy region gained early fame in this regard.

David Moore, co-owner of Moore Bros. Wine Co. in Pennsauken, Delaware, and New York, said that, regardless of who invented it, the history of wine captivates him, as it encompasses the sweep of the human experience.

"It's organized agriculture. It's trade. It's work. It's human endeavor," Moore said. "That's what's fascinating to us about wine, wherever it comes from, whatever group of persons brought it to western Europe."

McGovern himself is partial to beer, though he also enjoys a glass of pinot noir. Don't tell the French, but he is especially fond of certain vintages from California and Oregon.

Contact Tom Avril

at 215-854-2430 or


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