The oldest-known winery in the country helps us understand the Phoenicians' role in wine innovation.

By Mike Pomranz / FoodandWine.com
September 22, 2020
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Part of the appeal of drinking wine is the history; not just the vintage of the bottle, but also partaking in a tradition of enjoying fermented grapes that has endured for thousands of years. Thanks to this intermingling of wine and humankind, archeologists continue to make discoveries that add to our understanding of both — which is exactly what’s happened in Lebanon where researchers recently uncovered a 2,600-year-old wine press, said to be the oldest-ever found in the country.

Published this week in the journal Antiquity, the paper “Phoenician lime for Phoenician wine: Iron Age plaster from a wine press at Tell el-Burak, Lebanon” discusses the importance of a wine press found in a “remarkable state of preservation” that — alcohol aside — confirms “the existence of a local and innovative tradition of plaster production in southern Phoenicia” which “contribute(s) to the wider discussion of Phoenician technology in the broader Iron Age Mediterranean.”

The wine press at Tell el-Burak from the south-west.
Courtesy of the Tell el-Burak Archaeological Project

“The excavations carried out at Tell el-Burak have brought to light the first Iron Age wine press in Lebanon,” Adriano Orsingher, one of the paper’s co-authors from the University of Tubingen in Germany, told me via email. “The interdisciplinary approach adopted by the Tell el-Burak Archaeological Project has allowed understanding how this installation was built, its technology (with special regard to the plaster), and the process of winemaking from the trampling of the grapes to the storage of the final product in amphorae.”

Granted, as casual wine fans, archeological interest in plaster may be as exciting as watching plaster dry, but the paper does have a few tidbits on the sophistication of this ancient wine production. For instance, the plaster basin could hold about 1,200 gallons of must, and similar to the wine trade today, much of the resulting product was apparently shipped abroad, even earning a reputation across the Mediterranean in Egypt. “Wine was an important Phoenician trading item,” Helene Sader, a co-author from the American University of Beirut, told National Geographic.

Reconstruction of the wine press at Tell el-Burak, looking from the southeast.
Courtesy of the Tell el-Burak Archaeological Project / Drawing by O. Bruderer

These findings also help solidify the Phoenicians’ reputation as early wine influencers. “Despite numerous hypotheses implying that the Phoenicians were key agents in the proliferation of wine, it is notable that evidence of winemaking in Phoenicia itself was, until recently, scarce,” the paper states. “This scenario has changed as a result of recent excavations.” So, next time you need something to toast to, consider clinking glasses in honor of the Phoenicians. Even better if it’s a wine from Lebanon.

This story originally appeared on Food & Wine.