Oldest Evidence Yet of Wine in the Americas?

Oldest Evidence Yet of Wine in the Americas?

Contributed By Collin Dreizen

Ceramic shards from a Puerto Rican island draw a clearer picture of wine during the early stages of European colonization
Puerto Rico's tiny, unpopulated Isla de Mona may have hosted the
Western Hemisphere's first wine tasting—on land, at least.
(David S. Holloway/Getty Images)
How long has the Western Hemisphere had wine? As we discovered in 2020, that hasn’t been an easy question to answer. But new research from a U.K.–based team is helping clear things up. Their paper, published in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences in May, indicates there was grape wine in the Caribbean during the earliest stages of European colonization.

“We set out to simply illuminate a poorly understood aspect of culinary history,” Cranfield University’s Dr. Lisa Briggs, one of the paper’s co-authors, explained to Wine Spectator via email. “How did the two very different traditions of food and beverage found in Indigenous Caribbean communities and European seafarers change, adapt or converge during the period of early contact?” To that end, the team analyzed centuries-old ceramic shards—26 Indigenous, 14 European—from Puerto Rico’s Isla de Mona. (Uninhabited today, the small island was a pirate hideaway in the 17th century.)

Building off earlier tests, molecular testing revealed a few possibilities about the local menu: People on Isla de Mona might have roasted fish with a barbacoa-like technique; they may have been major cassava farmers; and someone, somewhere on that island, was sipping wine. “After early European settlements suffered starvation as a result of a failure to adapt to local culinary practices, the colonists adopted local customs,” said Briggs. “But one thing they held onto was their wine.”

Looking at shards of a 16th-century Spanish olive jar (a type of container used to hold more than just olives, mind you), the researchers found residue with a ratio of tartaric and malic acid that indicated the presence of vino. This may make the shards the oldest-known evidence of wine in the Americas. Researchers also found signs of terpene compounds (diterpenoids) likely derived from pine trees, which Europeans once used as an antimicrobial sealant for wine vessels (terpenes are still used in Greece to make retsina).

“We often think of seafarers drinking distilled beverages like rum; here we see early evidence that wine was transported on board some of the first ships that traveled from Europe,” Briggs observed. “This suggests that wine drinking was an important aspect of European culture and was one of the first European traditions to be brought to the Americas.”

We don’t know yet what type of wine was in the jar (aka Sample No. 175). Briggs and the team say the wine was likely made in Europe using Vitis vinifera grapes. Adding a bit more context, the jar was found at what may have been a religious site. “If [this was] Communion wine required for Catholic religious rights, perhaps maintaining a supply of wine was made a priority on long voyages,” said Briggs. Still, as with many mysteries in the world of wine archaeology, we will have to wait for more answers. Per Briggs, “Many more olive jars were found on the island, which are waiting to be analyzed.”

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