The Impact of DNA Research on Traditional Winemaking

Since the Romans began planting vines throughout their empire in the centuries before the birth of Christ, man has had to adapt to environmental issues and problems.

Since the European monks began toiling in their sophisticated vineyards and wineries in the Medieval and Renaissance eras, man has had to deal with the vagaries of weather and natural disasters.

Today’s vineyard owners and winemakers have been dealing with these centuries-old issues in a manner similar to the trial-and-error methods of their predecessors – until recently.

The research and success in dealing with nature’s proclivities and calamities is beginning to shift from artisans in disheveled, stained work clothes in field laboratories to trained scientists in crisp, spotless lab coats in science laboratories. Jeans research and genes research, if you’ll forgive the alliteration.

Throughout history, winemakers have relied on traditional means of developing, hybridizing and grafting grapevines to produce more disease-resistant rootstock and grapes with unique traits. By unraveling the DNA of grapevines and grapes, the future impact of science on the wine industry seems destined to overcome many of the issues that have plagued winemakers for millennia.

For centuries, winemakers realized that developing the best grapevines was the function of two factors. First, the need for strong rootstock that withstands diseases such as fungus and mildew, and predators such as insects. Second, the hybridization of growth shoots, grafted onto rootstock, that produce the optimal quality fruit for a particular environment.

Let’s review several instances in which man persevered, utilizing trial-and-error methods over a protracted period and at significant unrealized profits. A question looms large: Is DNA-altering a radical divergence from nature or a logical progression of man’s interaction with it?

  1. Before the advent of evolving DNA discoveries, winemakers across nations were continual victims of nature. In the late 19th century, French winemakers, in an effort to improve their grapevines, imported rootstock from the United States. Unfortunately, these hybridized clones harbored an insect (Phylloxera) that, while not harmful to American rootstocks, were devastating to European plants. Thousands of acres throughout Europe were wiped out in a matter of a few years.

Belatedly, the desperate French wine industry discovered that the American rootstock was immune to the Phylloxera. What a vicious circle: American rootstock unknowingly spread the disease and then was discovered to be the cure.

In the 21st century, similar circumstances are resolved in a science laboratory, producing immeasurable time and financial savings. Is DNA altering a radical divergence from nature or a logical progression of man’s interaction with it?

  1. Before DNA research, regional producers dependent on traditional grape varietals were victims of changing consumer palates. In Tuscany, sales of Chianti Classico wines began declining in the 1990s as consumers’ preferences for more balanced, less acidic, wines emerged, relegating Chianti Classicos to also-rans.

Growers in the region reacted by investing significant research dollars over a number of years to develop hundreds of clones of their signature Sangiovese grape. Winemakers then conducted their own experiments to determine which of the new clones were best suited for their unique terroir.

Today the quality and popularity of Chianti Classico wines is at an all-time high. Is DNA altering a radical divergence from nature or a logical progression of man’s interaction with it?

  1. In the United States, winegrowers have gone one step further than the Tuscans. Rather than seeking a singular clone that meets a particular profile, they have selected, even created, clones that optimize grape quality and quantity in small plots within a single vineyard.

I’ve visited one such winery, Siduri Winery in California, which plants clones to meet specific terroirs of plots of several acres in size or several rows of vines. All in the name of manipulating nature to meet their objectives. Is DNA altering a radical divergence from nature or a logical progression of man’s interaction with it?

Science is stepping in to replace the timeworn efforts of winegrowers experimenting in their vineyards. The science of genomics is rising in popularity; stay tuned for further developments.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and Program Director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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