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Aged to perfection? 3,700-year-old cellar housed 'luxurious' wine

3,700-year-old jars were discovered in an ancient palatial wine cellar unearthed by researchers at Tel Kabri in July 2013. The team worked in da...
These 3,700-year-old jars were discovered in an ancient palatial wine cellar unearthed by researchers at Tel Kabri in July. The team worked in day and night shifts to excavate 40 intact vessels during its six-week dig.Eric H. Cline / George Washington University

A 3,700-year-old palatial cellar packed with jars once filled with a wine-like brew has been discovered at an archaeological site in northern Israel, a team of researchers announced Friday. 

The cellar is perhaps the oldest of its type ever discovered and the wine was anything but ordinary. Spiked with juniper berries, cedar oil, honey and tree resins, it was likely the good stuff pulled from the cellar for grand, royal banquets where resident rulers and perhaps their trading partners washed down a feast of wild cattle with an intoxicating swill, according to Assaf Yasur-Landau, chair of the maritime relations department at the University of Haifa in Israel.

"This wine included, it is important to note, not only local materials but also possibly materials that were imported from elsewhere such as cedar oil, thus making it a very luxurious drink that was reserved for these special occasions," he said during a telephone briefing with reporters on Thursday. 

Yasur-Landau and colleagues unearthed the wine cellar in July and August as part of ongoing archaeological excavations at a sprawling Canaanite city called Tel Kabri. Its 30,000 or so residents were primarily tapped into the agricultural economy, though pottery from the island of Cyprus and art from ancient Greece indicate a robust maritime trade.

The researchers were to present their findings Friday at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Baltimore. According to Yasur-Landau, the discovery marks "the first time that such wine is found in quantity in a palatial storeroom."

Oldest 'palatial' wine cellar
Neither the newly discovered wine nor the wine cellar are the oldest known, according to Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia and an renowned expert on the ancient history of alcoholic beverages. 

"The oldest chemically confirmed 'wine cellars' are those in the tomb of Scorpion I," he said in an email to NBC News. This Egyptian tomb dates to around 3150 BC and contained about 1,200 gallons of wine that was imported from the Jordan Valley. A wine cellar that dates to 3000 B.C. is in the cave of Areni in present-day Armenia, McGovern added.

"If we are making this claim only for ancient Canaan and put the emphasis of 'palatial,' then Kabri might well be the earliest," he said. Regardless, the importance of the discovery, McGovern explained, is that it helps round out the picture of Canaanite winemaking, which was developed "to high degree, beginning possibly as early as 5000 B.C."

"The Canaanites went on to transplant the domesticated grapevine and winemaking to the Nile Delta, where the pharaohs established a royal industry around 3000 B.C., and then transmitted the wine culture across the Mediterranean to Crete, Italy, Spain and elsewhere by seaborne trade and colonization in later millennia," McGovern noted. "The Canaanites and Phoenicians thus laid the foundation for winemaking from the Eurasian grape (Vitis vinifera) around the world."

Put in this context, the new finds at Kabri represent a later stage in the development of winemaking in Canaan. "It also lines up nicely with the huge contemporaneous or later 'wine cellars' and storerooms" at ancient sites in central Turkey, Syria and elsewhere in northern Mesopotamia.

Jar analysis
Forty jars, each about 3 feet tall and lacking decorative markings, were found in a 15-by-25-foot storeroom adjacent to a banquet hall that the team excavated in 2011, Eric Cline, an anthropologist and project co-director, explained on the call with reporters. 

"We've got about 2,000 liters (528 gallons) of wine. That's not actually enough to distribute to the general populace, which is why we are thinking at the moment it was a palatial wine cellar," he said. The caveat, he added, is it appears that additional storerooms may exist adjacent to the cellar excavated this summer. If so, there could be enough wine for wider distribution.

As the jars were excavated from the site, Andrew Koh, an archaeological scientist from Brandeis University, collected samples from near the bottom of each vessel and put the the residue through organic analysis. 

"What struck us is that there is great regularity in all of these jars; these aren't a sporadic enterprise. They consciously crafted and brewed these wines for a specific purpose," Koh said in the briefing. According to his analysis, the jars contain traces of tartaric and syringic acid, which are consistent with wine, as well as tree resins, juniper berries, cinnamon bark, mint and honey.

"This in fact is not your average wine, but this is some sort of special wine, which would fit a palatial context," he said.

According to McGovern, the wine may be special, but he urged caution about such interpretations until the chemical analysis is published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. And as for hopes the research will yield a recipe for a next blockbuster wine, he said that "is highly unlikely since compounds deferentially degrade."

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, visit his website