Ancient Wines and “Thoughtful” Drinking: trends for a new year

updated 2/2/20

What will you be drinking this year? I’ve been asking myself this question as the annual “Trends” columns started appearing. I held a tasting on just this topic at my Philly wine bar, Jet, and included “New Regions” (e.g. British Columbia), “Classics with a Twist” (e.g. Sangiovese-based Tuscan wine from the Maremma), and “Ageable Whites” (Chenin Blanc from all over, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, whites of Lugana…so many!). These are styles and trends that I quite like, and that my crystal ball suggests will be popular.

But, the two that I am most enthusiastic about, supportive of, and hopeful for are “Ancient World” wines and “Thoughtful Drinking”. Let me explain.

Ancient World Wines

Most people have heard of Old World and New World wines, but what about Ancient World wines? Old World wine countries are those with long histories of modern wine-production, mainly located in Western Europe (for instance France, Italy, Spain, and Germany, among others). New World wines are those with “newer”, more recent histories of wine production, such as South Africa, Argentina, Australia, and the United States. Ancient World wines are those from countries in which knowledge and production of wine long preceded that of the Old World, such as the Republic of Georgia, Turkey, and Armenia.

Wait, what? Why the disparity in “Old” and “Ancient”?

In a very basic sense, the differences are a result of two things: the lasting intellectual and historical legacy of the Roman Empire (Old World), as well as the very real interruptions to the ancient wine traditions in Eastern Europe, Western Asia, and the Middle East (Ancient World).

If one considers the geography of “Old World” countries, the influence of the Romans is indisputable. These are all countries whose economic and cultural institutions had common heritage through the Roman Empire. Even when adapted to the post-Empire world, these countries shared a basis for interaction and relations that helped them flourish. It is these shared institutions and relationships that history codified in the exploits of monarchs, emperors, and popes of “Western Civilization”. Greece, whose impact on the Roman World and its wine traditions was significant, nonetheless gets excluded from the Old World on the basis of its post-Empire relationships; Greece forged its path with Byzantium and the East, taking it away from the political and economic activities of the West. So, too, Lebanon has a long history of wine making, and Phoenician merchants (based in Lebanon) were just as responsible as the Greeks for spreading wine around the Mediterranean – including the lands of the Romans. But, Lebanon’s history – like Greece’s – became aligned to the East. That departure was initially quite prosperous, but led to interruptions in their economic prosperity and traditions, as the instability of war and social and political discontent hit these areas harder than those that remained entrenched in “western” institutions.

More ancient than the wine-making traditions of Greece and Lebanon are those of the Republic of Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, and Iran. The most current archaeological data indicates that wine was being made ca 8000 years ago in the land of modern Georgia, about 6000 years before Julius Caesar ever crossed the Rubicon. In lands of Iran, wine was being stored in large jars about 7000 years ago, and a 6000 year-old winery was found in modern Armenia. Turkey, though not as yet showing evidence this old, was also surely at the forefront of early wine. Following this trajectory out of the Caucasus and across Turkey, we get to Bulgaria, which I’ve always thought likely to hold an ancient wine tradition. Their origins are far from clear, but the Greek historian Herodotus suggested that the Thracians (who inhabited ancient Bulgaria) had a major wine tradition. They left behind ceremonial wine vessels, like kraters and rhyton, and it is suggested that the Greek God Dionysus (from whom Bacchus and Bacchanalia derive) was a Thracian God, borrowed by the Greeks.

While commercial wine-making does not currently occur in Iran, these other ancient-tradition countries are enjoying a comeback after decades of Soviet intervention in their economies. Under Soviet patronage, vines were preferred for their quantity, and production occurred on an industrial and mechanized level. Current producers are looking to their pasts and reviving ancient vines and techniques, and producing at a more human scale. The results show both success and promise for the future of these Ancient Worlds.

These are categories that are not entirely clear cut, of course. Realistically Croatia and Slovenia should be Old World countries – related as they are to the Roman Empire, and without the ancient traditions of, say, Bulgaria or Greece. However, they were heavily affected by the post-WWII influence of the Soviet Bloc, whilst part of Yugoslavia. Bulgaria, on the other hand, was making internationally-recognized wine (Bulgarian Melnik being a favorite of Winston Churchill) under Soviet rule, but nevertheless experienced strong disruption in its traditional industry, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Basically, I like wine from everywhere. But, I love drinking wine from the Ancient World. My career as an archaeologist and interest in the origins of wine probably makes this interest stronger, but in many ways the wines of these countries evolved in a very different fashion from either the Old- or New- World wines. The grapes are different, the land is different, the techniques are often different, and the people are different. The results are delicious.

Thoughtful Drinking

This is a fairly abstract desire that is my hopeful wish for the future of wine: that wine consumers see past broad categories and fads, and evaluate individual wines and producers based on affinity with their ethics and quality.

 “Trends”, by themselves, can be positive; they tend to bring into focus a wine region, style, or philosophy that might be relatively obscure, limited to only a few audiences, or involve new (or rediscovered) techniques or thoughts. This is the case with Pet-Nat, Orange, and “Natural” wines, which remain popular trends of the last few years.

I like elements of all of these wine styles. “Natural” wines contain a commitment to sustainability and minimal intervention with which I’m in agreement. They also tend to use techniques such as whole-cluster fermentation and fermentation in amphora that can lead to fresh and funky flavors that I like.

But, it is also the case that wine categories – trendy, or not – include an array of people and producers of all types and stripes, some of whom may or may not share your personal values. So, people who share my thirst for diversity, inclusion, equality, and excellent wine-making, may be grouped together with people whose behaviors I do not support, such as sexism or racism, or poor quality wine-making. Essentially, the broader identity of a whole category hides the sins of the individual producer. In terms of “natural” wines, one area that bothers me is a profusion of labels that I believe promote and reinforce sexist values through their imagery (e.g. objectification and over-sexualization of women). While these make up only a small part of the category, they (and their producers) are often flippantly described as just cheeky, anarchist, and rebellious, as is the movement itself. But, bad behavior – by being overlooked or laughed at – is being approved; I do not accept that approval and will not buy wines sold with those labels.

That said, I *am* a fan of the subversive tendencies of those who disrupt hidebound traditions and standard modes of operation – whether of traditional production, social hierarchy, or classic terroir and its basis in the written history of kings and trade in the Western world. I am experimental and nomadic in my own drinking, and I like to drink wines from rare grapes, unusual appellations, and countries less-sampled. I’m also drawn to wines that disregard arbitrary boundaries resulting from changing political rule. Such boundaries surely do not demarcate flavor, style, technique, or even tradition – which is carried in the people, not in the land and not in governmental authority. It is partly an indifference to traditional boundaries and labels that draws me to Peter Weltman’s Borderless Wine initiative, with forward-thinking social, ecological, and global objectives. Yet, as positive a message as comes through Borderless Wine, as a thoughtful consumer, I’ll still need to dig into the individual producers to find out whether any breach my own ethical values and priorities.

I am certainly not saying that all trends are bad, or that there is no value in exploring them. Rather, trends tend to be superficial and, like most things, require a deeper dive for greater understanding on just what is on offer, and whether that fits one’s own perspective.

I thus hope that the future of wine consumption is, above all, tasty wines. But I also have this hope for the future of wine drinking: to not broadly consume trends, but to select thoughtfully from within them.

Update: Since publishing this post, I ran across an article proposing “Ancient World” as a category for such places of ancient production as China (read here).

Further reading:

McGovern, Early Neolithic wine of Georgia in the South Caucasus, PNAS November 28, 2017 114

Barnard, et al,.Chemical evidence for wine production around 4000 BCE in the Late Chalcolithic Near Eastern highlands, JNAS 38(5), April 2011