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ARCHAEOLOGY

French ‘learned wine-making’ from Italians

Despite now being perhaps the global capital of wine, France imported its earliest wine and learned wine-making from ancient Italians, according to archaeological evidence unearthed by US researchers.

French 'learned wine-making' from Italians
Did ancient Italians teach the French everything they know about wine-making? File photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP

The earliest evidence of wine in France suggests that it came from Italy, and that it was mixed with basil, thyme and other herbs, according to research published on Monday.

This early wine may have been used as medicine, and likely was imbibed by the wealthy and powerful before eventually becoming a popular beverage enjoyed by the masses, researchers said.

The artifacts found at the French port site of Lattara, near the southern city of Montpellier, suggest that winemaking took root in France as early as 500 BC, as a result of libations and traditions introduced by the ancient Etruscans in what is now Italy.

"Even though France is now the centre of the world's wine culture, wine was originally an import to France," lead author Patrick McGovern told The Local.

"What the research shows is that the Etruscans, by importing wine to France, built up a great desire for wine in that area. Then the locals took the next logical step and grew the grapes and made the wine themselves," said McGovern, who is director of the biomolecular archaeology laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia.

The analysis in the US journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is based on ancient wine containers and a limestone press brought by seafaring Etruscan travelers.

The most significant of its findings, according to McGovern, is a limestone pressing platform dating to about 425 BC. 

"Finding that this was in fact used as a wine press shows local production of wine, rather than just importation," he said.

The study, McGovern told AFP, provides "clear chemical evidence, combined with botanical and archaeological data, showing how wine was introduced into France and initiated a native industry." 

Researchers studied three containers, known as amphoras, taken from an archeological site in Lattara where merchant quarters lay inside a walled settlement that dates to 525-474 BC.

The samples they chose were unbroken, unwashed and sealed, allowing for unhampered study of the residues inside.

Based on their shape, researchers could reasonably ascertain that the amphoras were made in the city of Cisra (modern Cerveteri) in central Italy.

Using state of the art chemical analysis techniques, researchers found tartaric acid, the biomarker of Eurasian grape wine.

They also discovered pine tree resin and herbs such as rosemary, thyme and basil in the wine residue, suggesting a medicinal use.

Tartaric acid was found on a nearby limestone pressing platform dating to about 425 BC, suggesting it was used as a wine press.

Together, the artifacts provide the earliest known biomolecular archaeological evidence of grape wine and winemaking on French soil, the study said.

"Now we know that the ancient Etruscans lured the Gauls into the Mediterranean wine culture by importing wine into southern France," said McGovern, who studies how wine culture originated in the Middle East some 9,000 years ago, and made its way to modern Europe.

"This built up a demand that could only be met by establishing a native industry, likely done by transplanting the domesticated vine from Italy, and enlisting the requisite winemaking expertise from the Etruscans."

The earliest known chemical evidence for wine was found in what is now northern Iran at the site of Hajji Firiz, and dates to about 5,400-5,000 BC.

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FARMING

Cold snap ‘could slash French wine harvest by 30 percent’

A rare cold snap that froze vineyards across much of France this month could see harvest yields drop by around a third this year, France's national agriculture observatory said on Thursday.

Cold snap 'could slash French wine harvest by 30 percent'
A winemaker checks whether there is life in the buds of his vineyard in Le Landreau, near Nantes in western France, on April 12th, following several nights of frost. Photo: Sebastien SALOM-GOMIS / AFP

Winemakers were forced to light fires and candles among their vines as nighttime temperatures plunged after weeks of unseasonably warm weather that had spurred early budding.

Scores of vulnerable fruit and vegetable orchards were also hit in what Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie called “probably the greatest agricultural catastrophe of the beginning of the 21st century.”

IN PICTURES: French vineyards ablaze in bid to ward off frosts

The government has promised more than €1 billion in aid for destroyed grapes and other crops.

Based on reported losses so far, the damage could result in up to 15 million fewer hectolitres of wine, a drop of 28 to 30 percent from the average yields over the past five years, the FranceAgriMer agency said.

That would represent €1.5 to €2 billion of lost revenue for the sector, Ygor Gibelind, head of the agency’s wine division, said by videoconference.

It would also roughly coincide with the tally from France’s FNSEA agriculture union.

Prime Minister Jean Castex vowed during a visit to damaged fields in southern France last Saturday that the emergency aid would be made available in the coming days to help farmers cope with the “exceptional situation.”

READ ALSO: ‘We’ve lost at least 70,000 bottles’ – French winemakers count the cost of late frosts

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