Maybe we should all be drinking more retsina

This story about the oldest wine cellar ever discovered has been making the rounds: essentially, it was discovered in a palace dating back to 1700 BC, and it once held 500 gallons of wine, which is enough to fill a seven-person hot tub (or perhaps more relevantly, 3,000 wine bottles). Here’s the palace that was excavated; it’s in modern-day northern Israel, about four miles from the Mediterranean. Apparently, it was buried in rubble by a natural disaster that happened around 3,700 years ago. 

Now, all the liquid had evaporated — I think that’s what happens to liquid over 3700 years — but there were traces in the pots/jugs of various elements of the wine, including tartaric acid, syringic acid, pistachio oil, cedar oil, cinnamon, honey, juniper berries and/or mint. The wine recipe was similar (or almost exactly the same) in all 39 jugs, which means this was a formulaic process. The formula and contents are also similar to another excavation site, along the Euphrates River in modern Iraq. 

At this point, the oldest chemically-viable, proven wine cellar ever discovered had been Scorpion I’s. Those date to about 3150 BC, which would still be older than this discovery, but if you classify it differently — only ancient Canaan, and using the word ‘palatial’ — then the northern Israel discovery would be the winner. That’s from Patrick McGovern of UPenn. 

Now, the semi-interesting thing here is that the wines discovered at the Euphrates and Israel sites are very similar in composition to retsina, a Greek white resinated wine that has been made for about 2,000 years. The story goes that when the Romans conquered Greece, the Greeks were pissed (wouldn’t you be?) and didn’t like the Romans plundering their wine. To keep them at bay wine-wise, they used pine resin as a sealant; that pissed off the Romans, who wouldn’t drink the more bitter ferment. That allowed Greeks to horde and store their own retsina. The main grape used is Savatiano.

To put it mildly, retsina is a maligned wine. Off the top of that video, one of the women says “There have been some really bad retsinas coming across…” Indeed. But … the wine may be making a comeback. People at international wine shows are all interested in the genre, and some wine producers are now calling it “contemporary.” It’s undergoing a “big return,” so learn how to pair it with food. Some even deem it “the wine of the Gods.” People are penning love notes to it.

This is what I think is cool: even before the ancient Greeks, at Israeli palaces, people were using a very similar recipe to retsina. We live in a weird world. We don’t know a ton about the distant past, and what we do know is sometimes pretty spotty. (Maybe we don’t want to know, or aren’t supposed to know. That’s a person-by-person situation.) But here, we have scientists telling us that the residue in these 39 jars closely matches something we have in the world today, and something that seems to be making a comeback at the same time … we should all be drinking this periodically as a connection to the history of the world. With the exception of things like 507 year-old clams, how often can we engage in something with a direct historical link like this? Drink retsina. It connects you to royal history! OK, the marketing slogan needs some work.

Ted Bauer

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