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The Sciences

Chemical Analysis Reveals Possible Birthplace of French Winemaking, Hints of Pine and Basil

By Tasha EichenseherJune 3, 2013 8:08 PM


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Domesticated grapes for winemaking originated nearly 9,000 years ago, somewhere in the Eurasian mountains of what is today Turkey or Iran. And then they took a long, tipsy ride, over the course of hundreds of years and across the Mediterranean before they arrived in France.

wine bottles stacked in a row
Modern-day amphorae. Photograph by Christian Delbert/Shutterstock.

A new study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, unearths the first archaeological, botanical and chemical evidence of winemaking in France.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago and the Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier used Fourier-transform infrared spectrometry, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, and other techniques to analyze intact amphorae found in old merchants' quarters at the ancient Mediterranean port of Lattara, near the mouth of the Rhone River in southern France. The style of vessels and the chemical signature of residue found in them indicate that, as early as the fifth century BCE, the Celts were importing wine from Etruria, in what is today Italy. Notes of rosemary, basil, thyme and pine were detected in the amphorae at Lattara, matching what archaeologists know of wine from Etruria. To survive the several-hundred-mile boat ride from Italy, the wine was likely treated with pine resin, which served as a preservative.

Archaeological Dig at the Ancient Site of Lattara, in France
The remains of a Etruscan merchants' quarters in the fifth-century port town of Lattara, in southern France. Photograph courtesy of Michel Py, copyright l'Unité de Fouilles et de Recherches Archéologiques de Lattes.

Researchers also identified a limestone pressing platform, grape skin remains and several thousand carbonized grape seeds at Lattara that date back to 425-400 BCE – a sign that this Iron Age civilization was also importing vine stock and making its own wine. Vine imports may have been planted in the hulls of ships for safe transport, per finds from a fourth-century shipwreck off the coast of Mallorca, Spain.

Archaeological remains of an old limestone wine pressing platform
The remains of a fifth-century limestone pressing platform found in southern France. Photograph courtesy of Michael Py, copyright l'Unité de Fouilles et de Recherches Archéologiques de Lattes.

Slow Ride

Winemaking spread from its Near East roots as the Canaanites, Phoenicians and Greeks carved out shipping routes and colonies westward and along the Mediterranean coast. There is evidence of vineyards planted as early as 3,000 BCE in the Nile River Delta and 2,200 BCE on Crete. Viticulture reached the Etruscans by 800 BCE. Rumor has it that large amounts of ancient winemaking material have been found at other French sites, including Massalia, or modern-day Marseille, but they haven’t been analyzed. “The question remains whether similar archaeological, chemical and botanical evidence for local wine production as that from Lattara will be forthcoming from Massalia or another site in the region,” write the study authors.

But… “If [French] winemaking began [in Lattara, a the base of the Rhone], it could have travel upriver to Burgundy and Germany,” and influenced the modern wine culture of Europe, and the world, explains Patrick McGovern, one of the authors and director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. “The grape vine is a very promiscuous plant. There are more than 10,000 cultivars in the world. The ones people like to plant most are the French ones, which seemingly come from France but really are a mixture of traits picked up as wine traveled across the Mediterranean.”

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