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Detail of the 1650-year-old Speyer wine bottle. Source: Wines of Germany

To Open or Not to Open The 1,650-Year-Old Speyer Wine Bottle?

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Contemporary historians have been debating for a few years now if they should open the Speyer wine bottle, which is believed to be the world’s oldest bottle of wine. The Historical Museum of the Palatinate (Pfalz) in Germany has been home to the legendary 1,650-year-old bottle that is sealed with wax and contains a white liquid.

The Speyer wine bottle. (Immanuel Giel/CC BY SA 3.0)

The Speyer wine bottle. (Immanuel Giel/CC BY SA 3.0)

Debate Whether the Speyer Bottle Should be Opened or Not

It’s no secret that the older a bottle of wine is, the better its contents will taste. In this case, however, the Speyer Bottle is so old that many experts doubt if its wine is drinkable. Widely considered as the oldest known liquid wine recovered from any archaeological site, the bottle has been dated between 325 and 350 AD.

As Natalia Klimczak reports in a previous Ancient Origins article, “A Roman noble was buried with a bottle of locally produced wine around 350 AD. When his burial was unearthed near the city of Speyer in Germany, the researchers were shocked to see that there was still liquid within the bottle.”

Although it was analyzed by a chemist during the First World War, the bottle was never opened. A splash of olive oil and a seal of hot wax has kept the white wine liquid down in the 1,650 years since it was made. The wine bottle has been on display at the Historical Museum of Pfalz for more than a century and though it is a curious artifact, no research team dares to open it.

The Speyer wine bottle on display. (Altera levatur/CC BY SA 4.0)

The Speyer wine bottle on display. (Altera levatur/CC BY SA 4.0)

During the past years though, researchers have debated the issue, with many microbiologists insisting that the opening of the bottle could be dangerous. The museum’s wine department curator Ludger Tekampe stated a few years ago as Daily Mail reported:

 “We are not sure whether or not it could stand the shock to the air. It is still liquid and there are some who believe it should be subjected to new scientific analysis, but we are not sure.”

According to a recent Daily Mail report, “An Instagram post from the museum in September 2022 said that if the wine were to be drunk now, the taste would be 'comparable to that of tasteless chewing gum'.”

Furthermore, wine Professor Monika Christmann added, “Microbiologically it is probably not spoiled, but it would not bring joy to the palate.”

So, rephrasing William Shakespeare, we wonder: to open or not to open? It looks like this dilemma will continue torturing wine experts and scientists for many years to come.

History of Wine

Even though the oldest evidence of wine production was found in Armenia around 4100 BC, it would be safe to say that Western tradition of producing and drinking wine most likely started in the territory of Classical Greece, when people drank it during breakfast. A person who didn't drink wine in ancient Greece was considered a barbarian and the Greeks worshiped Dionysus as the god of wine and partying.

Portrait of the statue of Greek god Dionysus. (Ruslan Gilmanshin / Adobe Stock)

Portrait of the statue of Greek god Dionysus. (Ruslan Gilmanshin / Adobe Stock)

The Romans adopted their love for wine from the Greeks and spread its production and consumption across their vast empire. Many centuries later, wine production and consumption would dramatically increase in most parts of the world, burgeoning from the 15th century onwards as part of European expansion.

That possibly explains why wine, more than any other man-made liquid, has always been invested with layers of social significance, stigma, and messaging. It's associated with thousands of years of human history and carries incredible value as a symbol that communicates your social class when consuming it.

Urartian Wine Pottery. (Hayk/CC BY SA 2.5)

Urartian Wine Pottery. (Hayk/CC BY SA 2.5)

Golden Age of Wine and the Discovery of the Speyer Bottle

The period from around 1810 until 1875 has been termed by modern historians as the golden age of wine. In northern Europe, the industrial revolution and the influx of wealth from expanding overseas empires was providing a growing middle class with resources for luxuries, some of which included wine. Legal structures were changing to facilitate credit and investment was becoming more widespread – so it was easier to expand wine production.

Another key change was heralded by the free-trade agreement between France and Britain in 1861. This led to a period when tariffs on wines were almost entirely gone – thus ensuring that export growth stimulated production not merely for the French, but also for the Germans and Spanish, and, to a lesser extent, Italians. It was during that period (1867), when a bottle of unusual wine was discovered in Germany.

Wine harvesting and production in the 14th century (Public Domain)

Wine harvesting and production in the 14th century (Public Domain)

Top Image: Detail of the 1650-year-old Speyer wine bottle. Source: Wines of Germany

By Theodoros Karasavvas

References

All About Greek Wine. 2010.  ‘History.’ Available at: http://www.allaboutgreekwine.com/history.htm

Hall, A. 2011.  Shall We Crack Open the 350 AD Vintage? Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2072381/Worlds-oldest-bottle-wine-Historians-debate-open-350AD-vintage.html

Klimczak, N. 2016.  Alcohol for the Ancients: The Oldest Drinks in the World. Available at: http://www.ancient-origins.net/history/alcohol-ancients-oldest-drinks-world-007074

Vintage News. 2016.  The 1,650-year-old Speyer Wine. Available at: https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/02/16/57368/

 

Comments

You would have to be out of your mind to drink that liquid.  It’s so far from drinkable that it’s laughable.  Now, if it was clear and the seal was intact, perhaps.  But take a good look at that liquid.  Would you even put it near your lips?  I doubt it.

Interesting but if opened it would be a big disappoitment, I'm sure as the wine is no longer wine but something else. It's best being left alone completely and seen only but not opened. It's exciting enough to think that it's that old and still surviving in the bottle...leave it be.

Wine experts know that the idea that all wine improves with age is a myth. Like most things, it improves, peaks and declines. Some wise are best nearly fresh. Others peak at different points. The light white wines go first. The ones that last the longest generally are the high-quality red wines and wines that are high is sugar and alcohol content, such as the Bordeaux, Trokenbeerenausleses, Tokaj Esencia, and Vintage ports. Even the best wine, stored under the best conditions, is seldom drinkable after a couple of hundred years.
It would be miraculous if the wine in that bottle were even bearable at this age. The main purpose of opening it would be to analyze it to see how they made wine at that point in history. Of course at that age, it may have actually been made by Dionysus or Bachus and may magically carry you to the golden age of Greece, which could prove addicting.

It is very apparent by the appearence alone – that contents has gone bad. Opening it would be a sorry experience to those present as it would smell foul and also maybe exhaust some toxic gasses. It looks like it is slowly tuning into some type of mold. Very dangerous when you have no idea of what is actually going on with it. Leave well enough alone and continue to display it under UV light. 

Bon Appetite 

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Frequently Asked Questions

The Speyer wine bottle contains a white liquid believed to be wine, which has been preserved for 1,650 years. The bottle is sealed with wax and contains a layer of olive oil, which was used to protect the wine from oxidation.

The Speyer wine bottle is likely not drinkable. While it is microbiologically preserved, experts believe the wine would not bring any joy to the palate due to its age and potential chemical changes over the centuries.

Theodoros Karasavvas's picture

Theodoros

Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A. has a cum laude degree in Law from the University of Athens, a Masters Degree in Legal History from the University of Pisa, and a First Certificate in English from Cambridge University. When called upon to do... Read More

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