U.S. archaeologists may have found the ancestor of Chianti wine in an ancient well in the Chiantishire region of Tuscany.
Found in Cetamura, an ancient hilltop near Gaiole in Chianti in the province of Siena, the 105-foot-deep well yielded a bonanza of artifacts such as bronze vessels, cups, statuettes, coins and game pieces. The objects span a period of more than 15 centuries and embrace Etruscan, Roman and medieval civilization in Tuscany.
The most precious material, though, might be some 500 waterlogged grape seeds.
Found in at least three different levels of the well, which include the Etruscan and Roman levels, the perfectly preserved pips can provide key insights into the history of viticulture in a region now famous for its bold reds.
"The seeds were found at levels ranging from the third century B.C. to the first century A.D. Since they are not burned, they might carry preserved DNA," Nancy de Grummond, a professor of classics at Florida State, told Discovery News.
De Grummond, who has performed work at Cetamura since 1983, has been excavating the well for the past four years under the supervision of the Archaeological Superintendency of Tuscany and with the help of the Italian archaeological firm of Ichnos, directed by Francesco Cini.
The seeds were subjected to analysis at the lab of vegetation history and wood anatomy of the University of Naples Federico II. There, researchers led by Gaetano di Pasquale processed the obtained data with statistical software in order to highlight differences of size and shape for each pip.
It is known that seeds of wild grape (Vitis vinifera subsp. Sylvestris), the ancestor common to all cultivated species, is smaller and rounder, while cultivated grapes have bigger and elongated pips.
"It is likely that different grapes grew in Cetamura in Etruscan and Roman times," Di Pasquale told Discovery News.
De Grummond noted that the first results seem to indicate that there were at least three kinds of grapes in use in Roman and Etruscan times. Some of the Roman seeds appear to be wild, while others were likely cultivated.
The recipe for Chianti Classico was standardized by Baron Bettino Ricasoli in the mid-19th century and called for 70 percent Sangiovese to be blended with 15 percent red Canaiolo and 15 percent white Malvasia.
Whether the Etruscans or the Romans used a composition similar to modern Chianti is not known.
The challenge for Di Pasquale's team is to identify and name the waterlogged seeds.
"An answer could come from ancient DNA analysis, but we are still at an experimental stage," Di Pasquale said.