Lattara Excavations Reveal Earliest Evidence of French Winemaking

Etruscan amphorae and a limestone pressing platform unearthed at the ancient coastal port site of Lattara in southern France provide the earliest known archaeological evidence of grape wine from this country, and point to the origins of French winemaking around 500 – 400 BC.

2,400-year-old pressing platform from Lattara (Michel Py / l’Unité de Fouilles et de Recherches Archéologiques de Lattes)

2,400-year-old pressing platform from Lattara (Michel Py / l’Unité de Fouilles et de Recherches Archéologiques de Lattes)

France is renowned the world over as a leader in the crafts of viticulture and winemaking. But the beginnings of French viniculture have been largely unknown, until now.

“France’s rise to world prominence in the wine culture has been well documented, especially since the 12th century, when the Cistercian monks determined by trial-and-error that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were the best cultivars to grow in Burgundy,” explained Dr Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, lead author of a paper published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“What we haven’t had is clear chemical evidence, combined with botanical and archaeological data, showing how wine was introduced into France and initiated a native industry.”

Archaeologists found a number of Etruscan amphorae at Lattara’s merchant quarters dating to circa 525 – 475 BC. Dr McGovern’s team selected three of them for analysis because they were whole, unwashed, found in an undisturbed, sealed context. The amphorae also showed signs of residue on their interior bases where precipitates of liquids, such as wine, collect. “Judging by their shape and other features, they could be assigned to a specific Etruscan amphora type, likely manufactured at the city of Cisra in central Italy during the same time period.”

Using a combination of state-of-the-art chemical techniques and other sensitive techniques, the team detected ancient organic compounds in samples from the amphorae. All the samples were positive for tartaric acid / tartrate – the biomarker or fingerprint compound for the Eurasian grape and wine in the Middle East and Mediterranean, as well as compounds deriving from pine tree resin. Herbal additives to the wine were also identified, including rosemary, basil and/or thyme, which are native to central Italy where the wine was likely made.

Map of the ancient settlement of Lattara, showing the locations of the analyzed amphora samples (Benjamin P. Luley)

Map of the ancient settlement of Lattara, showing the locations of the analyzed amphora samples (Benjamin P. Luley)

Archaeologists also unearthed an ancient pressing platform, made of limestone and dated around 425 BC. Its function had previously been uncertain. Dr McGovern and his colleagues detected tartaric acid / tartrate in the limestone, demonstrating that the installation was indeed a winepress.

“Masses of several thousand domesticated grape seeds, pedicels, and even skin, excavated from an earlier context near the press, further attest to its use for crushing transplanted, domesticated grapes and local wine production. Olives were extremely rare in the archaeobotanical corpus at Lattara until Roman times. This is the first clear evidence of winemaking on French soil.”

“This confirmation of the earliest evidence of viniculture in France is a key step in understanding the ongoing development of the ‘wine culture’ of the world – one that began in the Turkey’s Taurus Mountains, the Caucasus Mountains, and / or the Zagros Mountains of Iran about 9,000 years ago,” Dr McGovern said.

“Now we know that the ancient Etruscans lured the Gauls into the Mediterranean wine culture by importing wine into southern France. 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.”

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Bibliographic information: Patrick E. McGovern et al. Beginning of viniculture in France. PNAS, published online before print June 3, 2013; doi: 10.1073/pnas.1216126110