An Update on the Ancient Art and Science of Wine Preservation

During human history, wine has played an integral role in enhancing the social fabric of numerous cultures and civilizations. At one time wine was consumed as soon as it was fermented into juice and alcohol. As mankind evolved, so too did winemaking – and wine preservation.

The ability to age wines for future consumption was enhanced by the advancements made in storing wines, creating ideal conditions conducive to natural preservation and transporting wines over long distances.

The art and science of wine preservation has been primarily centered on two aspects of the life cycle of wine: stabilized temperature and oxidation prevention.

Many techniques have been employed over the centuries.

Early winemaking, which some believe goes back as far as Neolithic times, emerged on an ad hoc basis: grow native grapes in open fields, induce fermentation by crushing them and, at the ideal moment when fruit, acid and alcohol were achieved, consume them (quickly) before oxygen and bacteria rendered them unpalatable and possibly dangerous. Early man also realized that wine was as much a social lubricant as a healthy source of liquid nourishment.

In 2007 a team of archeologists found the remnants of a basic winery in a cave in Armenia. They determined that the winery and traces of wine unearthed were over 6,000 years old. Among their key findings were a wine press, wine cups, fragments of grapes – and clay storage vessels buried in the cave.

Through trial and error, the ancient winemakers determined that this storage method provided the optimum temperature, humidity and darkness for sustaining the viability of their wine. Six millennia later, despite significant technological advances, winemakers store and age their wine in caves, at similar temperatures and humidity levels as the ancients.   

These clay storage jugs and storage practices were used extensively by the ancient Romans and Greeks. Archived shipping documents refer to these vessels as amphorae. Composed of available local clay, amphorae were the preferred shipping containers for many perishable food products stored on ancient ships undertaking the long sea voyages between Greece and mainland Western Europe. Watertight amphorae have been discovered on ancient sunken ships near Sicily containing wine, oils and various spices, several of which were still preserved after centuries under water.

The Romans further perfected wine storage when they conquered northeast France and planted grapes there. They discovered that the limestone caves in the region designated as Champagne were ideal for storing wines. The design of the extensive caves they excavated is in use today around the world and continues to be considered a preferred storage method.

Fast forward to modern times. Cave and cellar storage continue to proliferate. Even with the advent of mechanical cooling, many winemakers – and their cost accountants – prefer natural caves, for their temperature consistency and cost efficiency.

In the last century, as coal mining began waning on the East Coast of the United States, coal mining entrepreneurs transported their boring equipment to California wine country, digging out hillsides to form natural caves. Their scientifically validated criteria for creating the ideal cellars? The ancient natural caves of the Romans and Greeks in both Eastern and Western Europe.

Another, unintended influence of the ancients: at least one American and several European winemakers are experimenting with aging wine underwater. Encouraged by still-viable wines found on both ancient and modern sunken ships, these winemakers feel that the ocean offers the ideal temperature, pressure, darkness and swaying motion to age wine.

Here in the 21st century, restaurants and in-home wine cellars follow similar principles for ideal storage conditions. The ideal temperature for most wines? 55 to 59 degrees for both reds and whites. Humidity levels for all wines? 60 to 68 percent. Optimum level of light? Zero, which prevents damaging UV rays from penetrating a bottle.

Not coincidentally, these are generally the same specifications found in the ancient caves of early civilizations. To quote the familiar refrain: everything old is new again.

Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and Program Director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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