By Lettie Teague March 29, 2019 9:21 a.m. ET
A number of places claim to be the birthplace of winemaking and still produce wine, too. Judging by today’s standards, our wine columnist recommends bottles with both modern appeal and deep historical resonance.
WHEN AND WHERE were the first grapes cultivated, pressed, fermented and imbibed? Of the many contenders for that distinction, the following six places are consistently among the most frequently cited. Whether any of these is the true birthplace of winemaking—newly unearthed evidence perpetually upends our understanding of vinous history—we must judge the wines made there now as we would any other, on present merits. The bottles listed here, all notable examples of the countries’ respective styles and winemaking traditions, more than hold their own in terms of quality alongside wines from regions far more widely celebrated today. And when it comes to provenance, you could hardly hope to go deeper.
With a continuous winemaking tradition believed to date back over 8,000 years, the Republic of Georgia, a former Soviet state at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, is a country deeply committed to its heritage. Winemakers there employ many of the same techniques that were practiced millennia ago, including one that calls for burying wine in clay vessels (qvevri) in the ground during fermentation and/or aging. The 2016 Babaneuris Marani Rkatsiteli Babaneuri Valley ($21), made from the native Rkatsiteli grape, was fermented and aged in this fashion. With an amber color derived from extended contact with the grapes’ skins, it’s a full-bodied and slightly tannic as well as oxidative white with a bright acidity and a mineral finish.
The oldest hard evidence of wine production yet discovered was found in Armenia in 2007, when a team of archeologists uncovered winemaking tools dating back to 4100 B.C. The team dubbed the site, in the Areni-1 cave complex, Areni-1 winery.
The ancient Greeks worshipped their very own wine god (Dionysus) and also created the first wine appellation system, around the 5th century B.C., according to Sofia Perpera, the Athens-based spokesperson for the Wines of Greece. Different regions in Greece featured distinct styles of amphorae that were as unlike one another as a Bordeaux bottle is a Burgundy bottle today. Those who did not abide by the appellation rules were “quickly penalized,” said Ms. Perpera. One of the oldest grapes in Greece is Assyrtiko, native to the island of Santorini. It’s beautifully expressed in the 2017 Santorini Volcanic Terroir Assyrtiko ($20), a crisp, very dry, seafood-friendly white with a bright citrus note from a high-quality island cooperative.
Viticulture in Sicily dates back to the 8th century B.C. According to vintner Massimiliano Calabretta, who produces soulful wines on Mt. Etna, the Greeks first brought grapes to Sicily by way of Giardini Naxos near Taormina, a coastal town now chiefly famous for tourism. The wines were aged as well as shipped in amphorae, known in Sicily by the Latin name dolia. “The original formula for producing [wine] in dolia was lost,” Mr. Calabretta, a scholar of early winemaking, noted in an email. So it’s hard to say how similar his 2008 Calabretta Nerello Mascalese Vecchie Vigne ($32) is to its ancient forebears. Crafted from the indigenous red grapes Nerello Mascalese and a bit of Nerello Cappuccio, it is, I can report with certainty, a warm, rich and beautifully balanced wine similar to Nebbiolo, the famed varietal of Barolo.
Southeastern Turkey also gets a nod in “The Oxford Companion to Wine” as “a likely location for the origin of viticulture.” Yet Turkey produces little wine today and exports even less—though it is one of the most prolific grape-producing countries in the world. About half of all Turkish wines are produced in the western part of the country, in the Aegean region, near the Aegean Sea. The 2018 Paşaeli Çalkarası Rosé ($18), from the Aegean sub-region Denizli, is made from the ancient native Çalkarası grape, planted in Turkey for thousands of years. It’s a big, juicy, dark-pink, strawberry-scented wine.