Vinters art : Wine making

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: Sep 4 2014, 06:24am hrs
In November last year, archaeologists excavating a Canaanite palace site at Tel Kabri in Galilee, Israel, had discovered a room filled with 40 jars, which they believed to be the largest Bronze Age wine cellar ever found. The dig is particularly interesting because the room had been sealed with rubble by some cataclysmic event, perhaps an earthquake, and the contents of the jars had remained relatively sterile for 3,700 years. The residues would be susceptible to accurate chemical analysis.

Traces of tartaric and syringic acid suggested that these jars had held wine, which was central to social, political and religious practices in many ancient cultures. They had held the equivalent of about 3,000 modern bottles of wine, and the proximity of the cellar to what could have been a palace banquet hall suggested a political use. Literature offers numerous references of political leaders forging bonds with followers by supplying them with alcohol. The most widely known is Beowulf, in which the kings epithet is mead-giver. Therefore, wine-making at Tel Kabri could offer an understanding of both Bronze Age political culture in the region and the technology available. For without technology, there can be no wine. There can only be vinegar.

Last Saturday, after a year of testing at the chemistry labs in Brandeis University, the researchers published their findings on Tel Kabri. The Canaanites had had the capability to produce red and white wines, like their modern counterparts. But they had played around with flavouring agents, preservatives and feedstock other than grape, which were popular in the ancient world and would tremendously widen the ambit of modern fine dining if they were resurrected. Now, red goes with meat and white with fish and vegetables. It is like the old days, when you could have an Ambassador or a Fiat, and were happy with the illusion of choice.

The discovery of methyl syringate in the Tel Kabri jars suggests that honey was an ingredient. Other candidates include storax, mint, cyperus root, cinnamon and juniper berries. The last is widely used in northern Europe to flavour gins. Besides, terebinth may have been used as a preservative. These residues, and their uniformity across several jars, suggest that the Canaanites were capable of standardising complex chemical processes on a large scale.

Winemaking, which began in 6,000 BC in the Caucasus region, was probably humanitys first brush with industrial chemistry. It requires much more rigour than beer-making, the other source of alcohol in ancient times, in which skills can be developed in a fairly hit or miss, trial and error manner using small feedstocks. It is cheap and quick to learn to make beer from half a kilo of rice, and you can throw it away and start afresh if it goes wrong. The production of wine, on the other hand, requires a minimum output of a barrel, or a huge jar, in the case of Tel Kabri. The added expense of storage over a long maturing period suggests that wine-making in antiquity may have been the exclusive preserve of merchant princes and the nobility. Or, to put it another way, the investments and standardisation of chemical technology that winemaking requires probably made it an early monopoly of big business and the state. The vintners technology is no less complex than that of a chemistry lab and while the provenance of the equipment is largely lost in the mists of time, at least one great scientist is known to have played a role in developing wine technology.

Wine-making is the biggest business of the Chianti region in Italy. The second-biggest business is introducing tourists to the arcana of wine. Generally, this consists of taking them to tasting parlours where they give you a kind of debit card which you stick in shiny dispensers, and out come rare vintages. The use of plastic does make it a bit vulgar, but you get a chance to taste that Barbaresco that you could only wonder about, since buying a whole bottle would crash your car loan.

Those who can tear themselves away from these tasting dives can visit vineyards and their cellars themselves, cool, dark caverns full of gleaming steel maturing tanks, each topped by a huge cap made of green glass which occasionally goes glug. This is a device that lets gases out of the tank but wont let air in, since oxygen would disturb the anaerobic atmosphere inside. It has been in use for half a millennium, no one remembers why the glass has to be green, but everyone in Chianti knows who invented it: Leonardo da Vinci. This was also where he met Lisa Gherardini, whom he would immortalise as Mona Lisa. And in Chianti, he may also have thought up one of his lesser-known aphorisms: The discovery of a good wine is better for mankind than the discovery of a new star.