2,600-year-old Phoenician winery discovered on Lebanese coast

One of the 800-year-old treading floors of what's believed to be the largest Crusader winery found in Mi'ilya, northern Israel.
(photo credit: ILANIT CHERNICK)

The site itself was well-preserved, offering a window into the past, showing exactly how the ancient Phoenicians cultivated and traded wine in antiquity.

Archaeologists working in Lebanon discovered a 2,600-year-old winery purportedly constructed and used by the ancient Phoenicians, the greatest wine traders the world has seen, according to National Geographic.
What will now be regarded as the oldest wine press (gat in Hebrew) discovered in Lebanon, dating back to seventh century BCE, was found five miles south of the Lebanese city of Sidon known as Tell el-Burak in Phoenician texts - along with four mud-brick houses.
Tell el-Burak is purported to be part of an ancient Phoenician settlement, inhabited between the eighth and sixth century BCE.
The site itself was well-preserved, offering a window into the past, showing exactly how the ancient Phoenicians cultivated and traded wine in antiquity.
According to National Geographic, the winemakers would procure grapes from nearby vineyards, bringing them to settle in a basin of "durable plaster" able to hold up to 1,200 gallons of grape juice.
The workers would extract the grape juice manually by stepping on the grapes within the basin, and the ensuing "must" (tirosh in Hebrew) would then be collected into a large vat, then stored in pottery jars known as amphorae, to begin the fermenting process.
“Wine was an important Phoenician trading item,” according to Hélène Sader, an archaeologist at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and co-director of the Tell el-Burak Archaeological Project, according to NAT GEO.
Sader noted that Phoenician wine-making in the Sidon area was storied across the region, even being mentioned in ancient Egyptian texts. Despite its renowned history, there had been barely any evidence uncovered regarding Lebanon's wine-making lineage until now.
"The coast of Lebanon was never thoroughly surveyed, and very few sites with Iron Age [Phoenician] remains have been properly excavated," Sader explained, according to National Geographic.
Winemaking began in the triangle of the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). It was somewhere in eastern Turkey, Georgia and Armenia that wine was first made.
The vine then traveled south toward Egypt – which had the first great wine culture, and where wine’s importance was first documented.
On the way, it passed through Canaan and ancient Israel, which was therefore one of the earliest of all wine-producing countries. The Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans finished the job, spreading the wine message to the West and bringing the vine to North Africa and Europe.

WHILE THE Phoenicians were not the first to create wine, they were purportedly responsible for spreading wine making throughout the ancient Mediterranean. The merchants would set up vineyards and wineries within the Phoenician colonies across Europe and North Africa, and began gaining fame due to successful trade with Greece and Italy, according to University of Toronto archaeologist Stephen Batiuk.
“The Phoenicians perhaps introduced a drinking culture, [new styles of] drinking vessels, and a different way of relating to wine,” Batiuk said, according to National Geographic.
As it does in Judaism, wine also reached deep into Phoenician culture and religion.
"Wine was the Phoenicians’ principal beverage for sacrifice," said University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Patrick McGovern, according to NAT GEO. "But that was occurring already with the Canaanites, and it was passed along into Judaism and Christianity."
The Talmud describes 60 types of wines. Some wines were diluted with water; others would invariably have flavors added to improve the taste and act as a preservative. Salt, seawater, herbs and spices such as cinnamon were added. Raisins or date honey were used as sweeteners.
These flavored wines were forerunners of the punches or vermouths of today. Smoked wine was cooked wine. They were the forerunner of Mevushal (cooked) wine, though it was done to concentrate the wine into syrup rather than for kashrut reasons.
Even in those days they knew about drying grapes on mats to concentrate the sweetness. This is similar to Vino Santo produced today in Italy or the similarly named Vinsanto produced in Greece.
McGovern told National Geographic that he believes it's possible that Tell el-Burak may have been the one to supply the amphorae on two shipwrecks discovered off the coast of Ashkelon - considering both date around the same time period.
"We did an analysis on several of the amphorae, and it was wine," McGovern said. "Maybe these vessels were coming from there."
Adam Montefiore contributed to this report.

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