Israel: largest wine cellar of the Byzantine world found

The largest wine cellar of the Byzantine era: the wine of Gaza, known throughout the ancient world, was produced here. The discovery of archaeologists

The evidences that wine was already known and appreciated in ancient times are many: from the tradition of Roman banquets to the references in Jewish and Christian holy writings, it is clear ancient people loved wine.

There is even a theory which would like the birth of agriculture to be more related to the need of cultivating barley to produce beer than to the real need of food of Neolithic men, for which it would have been enough to eat what nature offered.

The biggest cellar of the Byzantine world

Recent excavations in the archaeological area of Yavneh, in the central district of Israel, brought to light a huge industrial complex, dating back to thousands of years ago, where wine was produced.

And it is not just any structure, but probably the biggest cellar in activity in the Byzantine era. Researchers of Israel Antiquities Authority believe it is the proto-industrial complex which produced and exported the so called Gaza Wine, well known among the people of Asia Minor.

Many amphorae of the type that were produced in the Gaza area have been found in the city of Alexandria, in Egypt: it is actually the most numerous pottery, among the many findings, underlines Jon Seligman, one of the authors of the research.

But what makes the archaeologists think to be in front of an industrial complex of such importance? First and foremost, the size of the newly surfaced structure. As Seligman explains, "many wine presses have been found in the country, but to find a complex of five large presses in the same place is unique." Each of the Byzantine wine presses found at Yavneh measures about 225 square meters, indicating a decidedly important production.

In addition, the production structures were carefully designed: "they are symmetrical, and have the same characteristics," Seligman notes, "they were built as a single complex, down to the smallest detail."

According to archaeologists, it is therefore clear that there was a certain subject with decision making power capable of "building a complete viticultural estate, with roads, cellars where wine was aged in amphorae, presses and furnaces for the cooking of pottery".

Facilities for the production of wine have been found almost everywhere in the Middle Eastern area, as far as the Negev desert, however what emerged in Yavneh, according to scholars, "was of a completely different entity".

How was wine produced in Byzantine times?

In Byzantine times, many pilgrims visited the Holy Land and had the chance to taste the famous "wine of Gaza" - which was not produced in Gaza, but it was shipped from there to European coasts - and to bring the news about it to their lands.

This is how the myth of the wine of the Holy Land rapidly expanded among European people, who therefore became one of the main customers of the export wine produced in Yavneh.

The excavations conducted by Dr. Seligman and his colleagues also give important indications about what was the way wine was produced in Byzantine times. It is clear, for example, that the structure of Yavneh did not produce only wine.

Grapes were initially harvested on small portions of the floor, where they were left to macerate freely thanks to static pressure. The one produced without breaking the skin of berries was certainly considered the wine of highest quality, lacking of tannins which are created just by breaking the skin of berries.

Only after grapes were brought to one of the five floors dedicated to pressing, which was done with feet.

Based on the recognizable characteristics of the structures, archaeologists estimated Yavneh's winery could produce 2 million liters of wine every year - a quantity which corresponds to a modern "industrial scale" and which leads scientists to the belief it was the largest winery of that time.

About the grapes used, unfortunately, every trace has been lost: the wine produced today in Israel is the result of imported grapes, as all autochthonous ones are extinct. The only thing we know, about the wine of Gaza, is that it was white wine. Ancient sources in fact talk about Gaza's wine as "white as snow" remembers Seligman. Archaeologists are on the trail of the Byzantine grape variety: their next study will attempt to extract ancient grape DNA from grape seeds found during excavations.