Vernon L. Singleton
A wine chemist's approach to the origins and ancient history of wines can be helpful in two areas: (1) suggestions for the study of wine-related artifacts, and (2) some additional perspectives on grapes and wines in antiquity. The ideas presented here, however, must be correlated with textual and archaeological studies of which this writer admits limited direct knowledge, despite considerable reading on the subject.
Liquid-retaining containers were necessary before wine could be made, kept or moved. Ancient containers are unlikely to be found intact, and even less likely to have their original liquid contents. Containers made of organic materials (such as wood or skin) rarely survive in any form as compared to pottery, glass, or stone vessels. Even the latter do not remain sealed and volatiles inside are eventually lost. If the container is open or broken and comes in contact with water, soluble substances and those readily attacked by microorganisms will be lost.
In the most archaeologically favorable case, such as desiccation in a protected arid spot, what chemical constituents are stable enough and distinctive enough to survive as indicators of wine having been present? The two most likely candidates appear to be tartaric acid salts and syringic acid derived from red wine's pigmented tannins. For example, tartrate crystals are reported from a Cypriote amphora of 800 B.C. (Psaras and Zambartas 1981; see also chapter 5 by McGovern and Michel and chapter 7 by Formenti and Duthel, this volume).
Even very ripe, low-acid grapes and wines from them contain L(+)-tartaric acid at about 4 g/1; underripe grapes contain up to three times that amount. No other fruit of the familiar kinds has significant amounts of tartaric acid; rather they contain other predominant acids especially citric and malic (Ulrich 1970; Lee 1951). For this reason, the presence of tartaric acid is considered