July 13, 2024

The oldest wine ever discovered in its original liquid form is red-brown and, quite possibly, full-bodied. Reddish brown due to the chemical reactions that have occurred in the 2,000 years since the white wine was poured into a funeral urn in the south. Spain – and potentially full-round because the urn also contained, among other things, the cremated bones of a Roman man.

Analysis by experts at the University of Córdoba determined that the ancient, viscous liquid in the urn – found in a rare, untouched Roman tomb accidentally discovered five years ago in the Andalusian town of Carmona – was a local, sherry-like is wine

Before the discovery, which is reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reportsthe oldest wine preserved in a liquid state was the Speyer wine bottle, excavated from a Roman tomb near the German city of Speyer in 1867 and dated to about 325 AD.

The Spanish urn was recovered in 2019 after a family who had work done on their house in Carmona came across a sunken grave on their property.

The sunken grave was discovered by a Spanish family who were having work done on their house. Photo: Juan Manuel Román

“It is a sunken tomb dug out of the rock, which allowed it to remain standing for 2,000 years,” says José Rafael Ruiz Arrebola, an organic chemist at the University of Córdoba who led the analysis of the wine has.

“You have to applaud the civic spirit of the house’s owners who immediately called the town’s archaeological department. The village archaeologists quickly realized that the tomb was incredibly unusual because it had not been raided or looted – Romans were proud, even in death, and usually built funerary monuments, such as towers, over their graves for people to see. They wanted to stay in people’s memories.”

The tomb contained eight burial niches, six of which contained urns made of limestone, sandstone or glass and lead. Each urn contained the cremated remains of a single individual and two of the urns were inscribed with the names of the deceased: Hispanae and Senicio.

Although the grave made headlines last year when researchers announced that they had found a crystal bottle in one of the urns that contained a 2,000-year-old patchouli-scented Roman perfume, it didn’t give up all its secrets.

The tomb contained eight burial niches, six of which contained urns made of limestone, sandstone or glass and lead. Photo: Juan Manuel Román

“There was an even bigger surprise when the archaeologists opened the urn and saw that it was full of liquid,” said Ruiz Arrebola.

“The urn also contained the cremated bones of a man and a gold ring decorated with a two-headed Janus. It was put in afterwards and the dead man did not wear it when he was cremated. There were also what could be the metal feet of the bed on which the body was cremated.”

After Ruiz Arrebola and his team determined that the five or so liters of reddish liquid in the glass jar inside the urn did not come from condensation or flooding, they began to analyze it. Tests have shown it has a PH of 7.5 – close to that of water – and contains chemical elements very similar to those in today’s wines.

“We were looking for biomarkers, which are chemical compounds that tell you unequivocally what a particular substance is,” the chemist said. “In this case, we looked for polyphenols exclusively from wine – and we found seven wine polyphenols. We compared those polyphenols with those of wines from this part of Andalusia – and they matched. So it confirmed that it was wine. The next thing to do was to determine whether it was a white wine or a red wine.”

The lack of spray acid, which forms when the main pigment in red wines decomposes, clearly pointed to a white wine – as did the local Roman mosaic showing people trampling white grapes.

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The polyphenols found in the liquid in the wine matched those in wines from the same part of Andalusia. Photo: Juan Manuel Román

“The wine was very similar to wines from here in Andalusia: Montilla-Moriles; sherry-type wines from Jerez, and manzanilla from Sanlúcar,” said Ruiz Arrebola.

The chemist and his team hope that the techniques they refined and developed during their investigations will help other researchers studying ancient food and wine.

“It was spectacular for us because we are all passionate about the world of archaeological chemistry,” he said. “And anyway, it’s not every day that the oldest wine in the world turns up.”

All of this raises a rather insensitive question. Was none of them tempted – even fleetingly – to taste this remarkable, historic wine?

Ruiz Arrebola admits he half-jokingly suggested to the chief archaeologist, Juan Manuel Román, that they have “a little glass” to celebrate the discovery.

“It’s not toxic in the least – we’ve done the microbiological analysis,” he said.

“But I would doubt it because this wine spent 2,000 years in contact with the cremated body of a dead Roman. The liquid is a little cloudy because of the bone remains. But I think you can filter it and try. However, I would rather have someone else try it first.”

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