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Study sheds light on history of French winemaking

PARIS — Scrapings from the bottoms of 2,500-year-old pottery containers have shed new light on the origins of French winemaking.

A team of archaeologists led by the University of Pennsylvania's Patrick McGovern used biomolecular analysis to confirm that fifth-century B.C. Etruscan amphorae found near Montpellier in southern France once contained a type of wine flavored with thyme, rosemary and basil.

Archaeological evidence and ancient texts have long provided reasonable certainty that seafaring Etruscans from central Italy introduced imported wine to their trading outpost of Lattara, now the French city of Lattes. The new evidence backs this up.

The study, published in the May 1 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also demonstrates that local Celts had begun making wine at Lattara by the end of the fifth century B.C.

Tracing winemaking's ancient roots is important because of wine's "crucial role in the transfer of culture from one people to another around the world," the study says.

Some evidence exists that Greeks living in what is now Marseille began making a local wine around the same time, or even earlier. But McGovern's research is the first to prove using chemical analysis that the Celts in Lattara had learned how to make wine from Etruscans and had begun producing it themselves by at least the fifth century B.C., McGovern said.

Besides the amphorae, the researchers also analyzed a limestone press found at Lattara and demonstrated that it was in fact used to press grapes, not olives, as had been thought previously.

"First the Etruscans built up an interest in wine, then the native Gauls saw that this was something that they wanted to do themselves," McGovern said. The Gauls would have learned grape growing and winemaking techniques from the Etruscans, with whom Lattara was an important trading outpost on France's Mediterranean shore.

Hundreds of years later, the Roman invasion helped spread winemaking across what is now France.

McGovern is the author of Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture.

In order to prove that the it was used to crush grapes, the researchers received permission to chisel off a 5- by 5-centimeter chunk of the limestone wine press. The samples were sent back to the University of Pennsylvania Museum where techniques including mass spectrometry were used to isolate and identify chemical compounds left in the stone and pottery.

Jean-Pierre Garcia, a professor of geo-archaeology and an expert on early French winemaking at the University of Burgundy in Dijon, said the study provided useful confirmation of what other researchers already believed based on archaeological and historical evidence.

"It's new to use this kind of analysis on the amphorae at Lattara, but it's a confirmation, it's not especially new," Garcia said.

Garcia said that whether or not it was the Celts or the Greeks who were the first to make wine in what is now France, "The bottom line is that the expansion of wine culture in France was due to the Romans."

Lattara is in France's Languedoc-Roussillon winemaking region, which coincidently is where one of McGovern's favorite wines comes from. The scientist says he picked up a taste for Banyuls, a sweet wine introduced by the Romans farther along the coast near the border with Spain, in the early 1990s while doing research there.

Study sheds light on history of French winemaking 06/18/13 [Last modified: Monday, June 17, 2013 3:53pm]
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