Endangered Grapes:

In Search of Lost Vines

Me and Dido's Lament still holds: Elin Manahan Thomas Dido's Lament

In search of lost vines

Imagine yourself as a part-time, poorly paid, grape researcher dedicated to saving as many nearly extinct grape varieties as possible. After having put out feelers many months ago, you suddenly have a new lead. Someone from one of the few surviving co-ops (not yet taken over by hired-gun flying winemakers doing quality control for a big supermarket chain up north) remembers seeing a vine with an odd-looking leaf pattern in the middle of a tiny, ancient vineyard. It is encouragingly old-fashioned and riddled with mixed grapes, inter-planted in a traditional helter-skelter manner—to say the least, prototypically over-ripe for “modernization.” Better be quick, you are told, the local co-op hasn’t paid out in two years and the old guy is quite ready to jump on the EU’s easy money and convert over to beans.

It’s your day off, but time is of the essence. Last week you arrived two days late and those vines had been ripped out to plant more easily pronounced and marketed Syrah. And so you drive for hours, eventually turn up a heavily eroded dirt road, and find yourself knocking on a door. A stooped, weather-worn, 70-year-old vigneron answers. You ask if you can take a cutting from his vine. “Sure, help yourself,” he replies, “and when you’re done, rip it out because it never produced enough grapes to pay its way and has always been too damned hard to grow. Oh, and if you see any others, rip those out, too.”

Sadly, you’ve heard it all before. But then you find a second unknown vine, and three distinct clones, so it’s been worth it. And who knows, one of those vines may be the one that saves Burgundy from oblivion due to climate change.

Relentless reduction

The past couple of centuries haven’t augured well for the biodiversity of wine grapes. Between natural calamities and human intervention, the relentless trend has seen both a steady narrowing of varieties and a reduction in their individual qualities. Where once hundreds of thousands of grape varieties and millions of clones existed, only 5,000–10,000 wine and table varieties survive today—some with but a single clone. And of these, little more than a dozen or so “missionary” grapes dominate the globe’s grape population that feeds our daily consumption.

None of this is very encouraging if climate change turns out as scientists predict. There may come a time when we desperately need the widest range of grape adaptability to combat what a reactive nature throws back at us. Wine, at least as we know it, may not survive if we don’t wake up to the worst possible scenarios.

Hayley Westenra Dido's Lament

The way before

Grape diversity took its first desperate turn in the late 19th century. The back-to-back plagues of downy mildew, powdery mildew, and phylloxera killed off massive numbers of unnamed vines and their clonal variations. Rioja, for example, dropped to a core of six grape varieties by the early 20th century, down from more than 70 before phylloxera. Currently, two of those six all but dominate production. Many other European wine regions saw similar decreases. What isn’t always recognized is that the few grapes that survived the above catastrophes weren’t always the ones that had made the best wine previously.

There are many reasons for this. One was demand. It is hard to imagine how badly people suffered without wine. Vignerons faced intense pressures, both culturally and market-driven, to supply thirsty consumers desperate for any kind of wine. Using relatively new and unknown techniques, the grapes vignerons chose to replant had to graft easily onto American rootstock. Some grapes didn’t take well, so were jettisoned. Most importantly, the surviving grapes had to produce a lot of wine very quickly. It is no wonder some vignerons opted for quantity over quality, ease of growing, and consistent alcohol production. Which is why, sticking with Rioja as an example, highly regarded grapes such as Graciano gave way to easier-to-grow, earlier-ripening, more alcoholic, and more productive Tempranillo and Garnacha.

But human intervention didn’t stop there. After phylloxera hacked Penedès’s 50-odd local varieties down to a handful, these were massacred in the late 20th century by a human cull that consciously uprooted traditional Iberian grapes in favor of French grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, or Sauvignon Blanc. All of these so-called “international” grapes were imported in the 1970s to feed a growing export market obsessed with New World-style wine made from French varieties.

During the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, this same wave of “internationalist” grapes rampaged its way through parts of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Eastern Europe, devouring indigenous grape biodiversity in its path. All this was done to slake a thirst for what we English-speaking drinkers wanted to drink—which is probably what the Chinese and Indians will want to drink in even larger quantities in the future.

Although Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese grapes like Barbera, Bonarda, Primitivo, Touriga Nacional, and Verdelho played a crucial role in establishing the American and Australasian wine industries, after phylloxera they were buried under an avalanche of French varieties that has dominated late 20th-century New World production.

Folly has also played a role from time to time. Take Australia, which is never shy of chasing a market fad at the expense of terroir truth. Backed with government subsidies, the Aussies ripped out thousands of century-old, dry-grown Grenache and Syrah vines in the mid-1980s — each one having shown how perfectly suited it was to its own terroir.

All this was done about the time the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay/Cabernet) Movement was taking off in California. The Aussies, one trend behind, replanted its best and most natural answer to the Rhône with northern European grapes such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon—drip-fed, of course—in desert-like conditions. After successfully feeding a growing UK export market just waking up to California’s 100-percent varietal labeling—pockets full of easy cash—the Aussies never looked back.

By the time they finally woke up to California’s newer Rhône Ranger trend and refocused on marketing their “century-old vines” for a premium, it was already too late. Many Australians would give their front teeth for those uprooted vines today. But ironically, even after that self-inflicted wound, Australia is still thought to have more biodiversity in its surviving Syrah population than exists in France’s Rhône regions today.

To clone or not to clone, that was the question

Every grape variety has a multitude of variants, popularly called clones. Clones manifest themselves through differing berry and bunch sizes, various levels of acidity, sugar, and tannin, as well as variations of aroma and flavor. Although each has slightly different characters, all are genetically identifiable as the same grape variety.

If grape diversity has had a tough ride, clonal diversity has dropped like a stone. Hammered first by phylloxera, biodiversity was systematically reduced during the 20th century by poorly considered selection. The long-term trend has been to uproot old vineyards bursting with a multitude of clones, in favor of vineyards planted to a single clone. This ideal has driven most New World vineyards since the 1950s. Almost all of New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc production can be traced back to a single, UC Davis Collection clone. Apart from Pinot Noir production, which sometimes includes up to half a dozen clones, this is true of most varietal wines. For the most part, mono-clonal uniformity is the rule throughout the New World and those parts of the Old World following that “modern” model.

The reason for this rests on available plant material. Vine collections and propagation nurseries throughout the world have tended to hold only a few clones of each variety. This has been driven by a misguided clonal selection process focused on production and quantity, over quality and personality. Vines that produced smaller berries and smaller bunches (making less, but potentially more concentrated, wine) were overlooked in favor of vines that produced big, fat (potentially dilute) grapes that were easier to grow. Burgundy, for example, filled its vineyards with overly productive Pinot Noir clones in the 1960s and 1970s, resulting in more, but less concentrated and less characteristic, wine. It took years to reverse the situation with higher quality replacements. Italy has done similar damage with bloated, dilute Sangiovese clones. So, too, the Rhône with Syrah.

In line with this, later ripening vines with higher acidity, lower yields, or lower alcohol have been systematically driven out of existence through breeding programs selecting for the opposite qualities. Similarly, an obsession with “virus-free” clones eliminated many “diseased” vines that naturally inhibited production but that nevertheless had potentially valid genes and made good wine.

The 20th century, then, sacrificed both grape and clonal diversity to many gods, more than a few of which have turned out to be false. The result is that in some cases clonal diversity has been so deliberately limited that grapes may never be able to breed themselves back into a naturally healthy biodiversity.

Christina Pluhar Dido's Lament

Bringing extinction to extinction

The Portuguese were among the first to recognize the consequences of the 20th century’s poorly thought-through process for varietal selection and propagation. During the mid-1970s, a research project driven by a few Port houses and academics from Lisbon and Vila Real surveyed Douro vineyards looking for higher-yielding Touriga Nacional clones. Although highly regarded for its qualities, Touriga was notoriously shy-bearing. Researchers were typically met with a response along the lines that opened this article: “Help yourself and then pull it out.” It suddenly dawned on everyone that the grape’s population was teetering on the edge of extinction. After confronting Touriga Nacional’s potential demise, it became clear that many other Portuguese grape varieties were equally at risk.

This gave rise to a loosely coordinated effort dubbed the National Network for Grapevine Selection, which matured in 2009 as PORVID (Associação Portuguesa para a Diversidade da Videira, www.facebook.com/porvid.portugal). Driven by the pioneering work of geneticist Professor Antero Martins, this organization of academic researchers, government agencies, and private wine companies is intent on identifying and preserving every Portuguese grape variety, and at least 50 clones of each.

One of the project’s key players, Antonio Graça (Sogrape’s head of research and development) explains why. “All the other European wine countries lag behind Portugal in the conservation effort. They rely on variety collections with just two or three clones of each, and so clone conservatories lack sound statistical design for diversity assessment. No adaptability is thus generated.”

The 39-year-old project has been an outstanding success. After creating a snapshot of Portugal’s biodiversity before any further decline, it began preserving this in 80 different experimental fields, purposefully scattering these in the widest range of climates and soils possible to ensure survival. Presently, Portugal officially lists 343 wine grapes authorized for planting. After extracting intrusive French and Italian grapes and another 45 commonly shared Iberian grapes, the final tally leaves Portugal with around 243 autochthonous grapes. So far, more than 65 of these varieties and 15,000 clones (50–531 each) are preserved in dedicated vineyards. The process will continue until at least 268 (243+45) varieties are safe; a number bound to increase, given that “new” varieties are being identified.

A unique selection process

PORVID gathers vines from the widest geographical range possible, focusing on vineyards planted before 1975. To avoid clonal duplication, it never takes more than ten cuttings per vineyard and purposefully seeks out a representative population in all regions where the variety is grown (50 clones per region is the minimum to preserve diversity). The aim is not to have the greatest number of clones, but rather a good representation of the variability within each variety.

The clones are then planted in geographically scattered preserves, repeated in statistically generated blocks to reduce environmental influence. Productivity, sugar, acid, and (for red varieties) anthocyanin levels are painstakingly measured for each plant in the block. The results are averaged out, generating a phenotypical value independent of environmental influence and an approximate genetic determination for productivity, sugar, acids, and tannins. After several years of experimental refinement, PORVID’s researchers will end up with a repeatable expression of genotype—the clones effectively reveal themselves.

A typical example of this is the clonal assessment for Tempranillo, which the Portuguese call Tinta Roriz or Aragonez. Looking at 257 clones, productivity alone varied from 0.853–3.992kg (1.881–8.8 lb) per plant. Similarly, Touriga Nacional is up to a healthy 197 clones now, ranging from 0.357–1.410kg (0.787–3.109 lb) per plant. Within these large differences in productivity are other wide-ranging parameters (acids, sugar, tanins, etc) that also provide measurably distinct characteristics and, ultimately, very precise definitions for each clone.

Beyond the preservation of diversity within each variety, on a more practical level these clones provide precise values that will help growers adapt to any future needs: altering productivity, reducing sugar levels, increasing acidity, etc. “What we still don’t know, but are actively working on,” Graça continues, “is which DNA differences explain the behavior differences that stand out so obviously from these more than 30 years of work. It’s only now that molecular analysis and computer power are available to dig that trench.”

Graça is elated by PORVID’s ongoing ability to discover new varieties: “After testing 137 clones of Vinho Verde’s Amaral, DNA has shown that it is not just one, but five varieties. The other four are resulting from natural cross-pollinations between Amaral and other varieties. The process of diversification is still inexorably ongoing, even in our own timescale. The outcome is that we may have far more than the now-recognized 268 native varieties.”

Jeff Buckley Dido's Lament

Where from, and where to?

Having filled its own Noah’s Ark with local grapes to counter any future deluge, PORVID is tossing out some interesting clues to help solve some of ampelography’s biggest mysteries. Once a comprehensive clonal database is established it becomes possible to map out where samples were originally gathered and, from that, to project where specific varieties are likely to have originated and where they may have spread.

Antonio Graça explains the graph below as follows: “The wider the curve, the more diverse the population. As diversity builds with time, the most diverse also means the oldest. We know that Seara Nova (top) is a recent man-made crossing and Jaen (second-top) is a relatively new variety in Portugal. We also know that Sercial, Negra Mole, Viosinho, and Arinto (lowest on the graph) are, relatively speaking, much older.” This latter group may contain some of Portugal’s oldest grapes.

Similarly, high diversity can suggest a specific point of origin or dissemination for a grape variety. Portugal’s Arinto has 530 clones identified and preserved so far. These are most diverse around Lisbon, suggesting it was established there first, radiating out later to Tejo, Bairrada, and Vinho Verde.

Using similar techniques, ampelographers have begun to piece together the flow of grapes around Portugal. Although Baga is Bairrada’s signature grape, Dão’s higher diversity suggests it as a more likely origin. Touriga Nacional was once thought to have originated in the Douro, but Dão’s diversity is as high, if not higher, suggesting that it is as likely a source.

A graph compiled by Antonio Graça indicating the diversity (the wider, the more diverse) and the age (the more diverse, the older) of Portuguese grape varieties.

Unforeseen revelations

As mapping becomes more comprehensive, it becomes possible to project grape movements not only from region to region, but from country to country. Some of the findings are already disrupting long-held beliefs. Take, for example, the ubiquitous Iberian grape, Tempranillo/Cencibel/Tinta Roriz/Aragonez. The long-held belief is that it originated in Rioja and spread outward: east toward Navarra and Penedès; south to La Mancha; and west, flowing through Ribera del Duero then down the Douro and farther south through Dão to Alentejo. Clonal mapping now suggests the opposite, with Valdepeñas becoming the new axis and Tempranillo fanning out to all these regions from there.

Citing papers read at a 2006 congress of the Office International de la Vigne et du Vin in Logroño, as well as internal data from PORVID and other similar Spanish projects, Graça says: “Interpretation of data from clonal populations recovered from Rioja, Valdepeñas (within La Mancha), Alentejo (eastern Portallegre and Vidigeras), Douro, and Dão now points toward Valdepeñas and not Rioja as the origin, as that is where we found wider clonal diversity.” “All of these regions show similar diversity,” Graça continues, “hinting at a simultaneous migration from Valdepeñas. I have no hard data from Ribera del Duero, but it is likely that diversity there is equal or less than is found in Portugal or Rioja.”

Once all countries and their various regions have comprehensively mapped out clonal diversity, it should be possible to detail where wine varieties have popped up and their subsequent flow around the globe.

Jenny Evans Dido's Lament

The origins of grape-growing and winemaking

One of the hottest topics in ampelography today is focused on the origins of grape-growing and winemaking in ancient times. PORVID’s research into clonal populations is playing its own role in helping to reach the most likely scenario.

A recently published research paper by Bouby et al. “Bioarchaeological Insights into the Process of Domestication of Grapevine (Vitis vinifera L) during Roman Times in Southern France,” (www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/ journal.pone.0063195), neatly summarizes the prevailing issues: “[T]wo major and interconnected questions regarding the domestication process and the diversification of grapevines are still debated. Was domestication a rapid process, based on selection of mutants and subsequent propagation by vegetative multiplication, or was it a slow process, involving sexual crosses and progressive natural and human selection? Did domestication only occur in a restricted area, or did it have a multiple-origin, involving several populations over the distribution range of the wild progenitor?”

The orthodox hypothesis is that Europe’s indigenous wild grapes (Vitis vinifera ssp silvestris) were completely scoured away by glaciers during the last Ice Age (22,000–10,000 bc). Thereafter, grapes were eventually domesticated (Vitis vinifera ssp sativa) for wine production, possibly in the mountains above the “Fertile Crescent” of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers around 8,000–6,000 bc. Following the spread of urbanized civilization westward, wine culture passed to the Phoenicians (800–600 bc), eventually entering Europe either through a northern route via Greek and Roman civilizations into France and Central Europe, or a southern route skirting North Africa via Carthage through Iberia. This prevailing “single origin” theory assumes all of Europe’s domesticated wine grapes were colonists from the East. But could it have been less ordered, linear, and dictated than that?

Over the past decade or so, molecular-based archaeology, bio-archaeology, and DNA analysis have added powerful tools to help puzzle out the most likely scenario. Grape tartaric acid residues in ancient pottery recovered from archaeological digs have suggested several early centers of wine production.

Bouby et al. summarize the archaeological evidence suggesting that “the earliest winemaking activities date back to the Neolithic in Southwest Asia.” This is based on “chemical analyses of dried residues found in ceramic vessels regarded as evidence of winemaking at Shulaveri- Gora (Georgia), during the 6th millennium bc, at Haji Firuz Tepe, in the Northern Zagros mountains of Iran, c. 5,500–5,000 bc, and at Areni, in Southeastern Armenia, c. 4,000 bc. Remarkably, clear archaeobotanical evidence for the extraction of grape juice is also available in Dikili Tash, Northern Greece, c. 4,450–4,000 bc.”

One of Europe’s leading ampelographers and co-author of Wine Grapes, Dr José Vouillamoz, feels this can be narrowed down even further: “Eno-archeologist Patrick McGovern and I have worked on this subject, and our conclusion is that Southern Anatolia is one of the best candidates for the place of the first domestication of wine grapes, although Transcaucasia (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan) can’t be ruled out. Iran has not been investigated enough yet, for it is the place where the most ancient published evidence of winemaking was found: 5,400–5,000 bc. That said, McGovern is currently analysing samples from Southern Anatolia and from Transcaucasia that might turn out to be much older.”

Here the crux of the issue is whether the earliest winemaking used local “wild grape” vines or fully formed “domesticated grapes.” Bouby et al. conclude that the archaeological evidence generated so far for an Eastern-driven “single origin” only supports winemaking, because the sites mentioned above are located within the modern distribution range of wild grapevines.

This throws open further possibilities for a “multi-origin” theory, including the possibility that winemaking and grape-growing may have sprung up within Europe’s early peoples independent (or relatively independent) of eastern influence.

The “multi-origin” theorists believe that European wild grapevines, dating back several million years, survived the successive Ice Ages by inhabiting southern sites that thawed out on a regular basis, or by following the advance and retreat of glaciation. Logically, Portugal, Spain, the Balearic Islands, Sicily, and Southern Italy are possible outposts for surviving indigenous European grapes. This hypothesis is reinforced by the fact that Western European wild-grape DNA is distinct from Middle Eastern wild-grape DNA.

The theory assumes that early Western Europeans made wine with what they had around them—local wild grapevines. When “domesticated” Eastern grape types came along later, these were absorbed into the local mix. After centuries of crossing and human selection, the end results are locally domesticated populations that contain grapes dominated by Eastern or Western wild-grape DNA or by mixtures of both.

Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine why someone couldn’t have dragged a skin-full of wild grapes into Altamira, Cureva de El Castillo, or Lascaux and made some magic potion to use while painting cave walls 17,000 years ago—or even earlier. Or why, over time, there may not have been any pressing reasons to “domesticate” wild vines because the wild-grape population in the surrounding hills was more than adequate. Any lack of evidence may be due merely to the nature of mobile, non-pottery-based cultures that left less obvious, biodegradable evidence to prove this possibility.

The hermaphroditic hypothesis

José Vouillamoz believes that “the most crucial condition for domestication to happen is the presence of hermaphroditic individuals within natural Vitis vinifera populations.” This “hermaphroditic hypothesis” points to the key difference between modern domesticated grapes and their wild-grape ancestors. The former is self-pollinating and fundamentally hermaphroditic in nature, while the latter is not, needing male vines to pollinate fruit-bearing females. Although rare, hermaphroditic vines do exist in wild populations, and the assumption has been that these were selected for early domestication because self-pollinators were more reliable producers and could be progressively selected for sweeter, larger grapes and bunches. The end result is that wild seeds have remained rounder with short stalks, while modern domesticated seeds have become larger, more elongated, with observably longer stalks (see diagram below).

Because ancient pottery impregnated with tartaric acid can only indicate winemaking, archeological speculation has shifted the focus onto the morphological differences between ancient wild and domesticated grape seeds. Unfortunately, most surviving seeds have been carbonized, dried out, or distorted to the point of inconclusiveness. This is why the Bouby et al. study is so important. Their research focused on well-preserved, water-logged grape seeds gathered from ancient winemaking sites straddling present-day Languedoc, from the Mediterranean over to Toulouse and up the Rhône Valley. The evidence illustrates grape-growing practices within the ancient Roman province of Narbonensis from 50 bc to 500 ad.

Following the “single origin” theory of domestication, this was a key period when the Romans are supposed to have transferred ancient Eastern domesticated grapes, viticulture, and winemaking practices to primitive Western Europe.

Unexpectedly, the study found that domesticated grapes weren’t a dominant factor. More than one third of grape seeds were wild morphotypes, indicating that the Romans were intentionally cultivating a mixture of grapevines: wild, primitive, domesticated forms and intermediate forms. They also found more wild seeds in the early period, indicating that domestication was actively happening later during the Roman occupation, and even then it was less selective and more dynamic than expected.

All this supports a stronger likelihood for multi-sited domestication and weakens the single, eastern-origin theory. It also erases any firm dividing line between wild versus domesticated grapes as the key indicator of when organized grape-growing and winemaking began. If the Romans were still consciously cultivating wild grapes next to domesticated grapes 4,000–6,000 years after domestication in the east was supposed to have taken place, it surely implies that organized grape-growing and winemaking purely from wild grapes was possible anytime before that anywhere wild grapes were available, from the Himalayas through to Western Europe.

Cross-section showing the difference between wild and domesticated grape seeds

Alison Moyet Dido's Lament

Drilling deeper

Taking a cue from the “Eve” theory that applied DNA to project humanity back to a single female ancestor living in pre-historic Africa, ampelographers are now using similar techniques to piece together parent-child/sibling relationships within grape varieties. Ancestral family trees are being mapped out in ever greater detail as more DNA data is collected. Most recently the hunt has moved on to analyze DNA and clonal populations of both eastern and western wild grapes. Like domesticated grapes, the more clones each wild grape has, the greater the likelihood that it has been there a long time. The hope is that residual wild-grape DNA in domesticated grapes might reveal points of origination.

Wild Vitis vinifera vines were discovered in Portugal in 2000, hiding in damp riverbank soils that phylloxera cannot penetrate. Since then, more than 140 sites with thousands of vines have been identified. It seems likely that the number will reach 500 or more. DNA fingerprinting has determined that these are the most diverse in Western Europe, suggesting a possible—or even probable—point of origination.

Antonio Graça observes that “70 percent of Portugal/ Southern Spain’s autochthonous grapes share most of their DNA with local wild grapes, whereas the vast majority of Europe’s wine grapes share DNA primarily with Middle Eastern wild grapes.” He refers to a research paper by Rosa Arroyo et al., “Multiple Origins of Cultivated Grapevine” (2006), signed by more than 30 researchers from 15 countries from Iberia to Central Asia. “This work compared types of chloroplasts (a genetic identity marker transmitted only by feminine lines so it remains very stable over generations) in 688 wild and 513 cultivated vines growing between Iberia and Central Asia. The conclusion maps out the genetic make-up of wild vines growing within regions from Iberia to Central Asia and compares this to the genetic make-up of domesticated vines in the same regions.”

Graça summarizes the key points: “Chlorotype A abounds (>90 percent) in the western and central Mediterranean (both north and south shores) in wild populations, whereas it is nonexistent in the Near and Middle East, where chlorotypes C, D, and G dominate. [...] Wild populations in Iberia and Central Europe consist almost exclusively of chlorotype A, signaling its origin there and a later expansion eastward along the Mediterranean.”

Conversely, cultivated plants are much more diverse because of human selection over time. Graça explains: “A small amount of chlorotype A is also found in varieties in the Near East, when it is nonexistent in their wild local counterparts, suggesting that some western DNA found its way to Turkey [...] Central European domesticated plants are dominated (~60 percent) by eastern chlorotypes C and D, despite their origins in the eastern Mediterranean, whereas the Iberian Peninsula stayed true to its origins and displays a staggering 70 percent dominance of locally originated A chlorotype in cultivated genotypes, with the remaining 30 percent divided among different eastern genotypes, confirming eastern introgression, as history tells us, by the hand of man.

“Further work by Portuguese research groups confirms these findings, and even relates some Portuguese grape varieties very directly to local wild populations (Lopes et al., ‘New Insights on the Genetic Basis of Portuguese Grapevine and on Grapevine domestication,’ 2009). For example, Síria (aka Roupeiro in Alentejo and Códega in the Douro) has been shown to be closely linked to local wild grapevines in the region of the Guadiana river in South Portugal.”

A paper published in May 2013 by Rosa Arroyo García and Eugenio Revilla, “The Current Status of Wild Grapevine Populations (Vitis vinifera ssp sylvestris) in the Mediterranean Basin,” concludes that “several geographic sources of wild and cultivated grapes support at least two separate domestication events that gave rise to cultivated grapes; one derived from the wild grapes of Transcaucasia, and another from the wild grapes of southern European and North African origin. Probably, with wider representation of wild grapes, one may be able to demonstrate the multiple domestication events supporting diffused centers of domestication of cultivated grape.”

Vouillamoz remains skeptical, “having some doubts on the technique and the sampling.” But he does not deny the possibility that “secondary domestication centers do exist,” merely noting that, “it has not been scientifically proven yet.” Graça adds, “So far it has only been demonstrated that grapes were used by man in Iberia around 4,500–4,000 bc. We just need to find new archeological evidence to push the date on Iberian domestication back. No one can say now whether it occurred before, during, or after eastern domestication.”


Over the past decade I’ve seen far too many old-vine vineyards ripped out for ill-considered, if not downright stupid, reasons. Extinction’s worst enemy is commercialization. California’s Ridge and Murrieta’s Well have created cult classics from co-fermented, mixed-vineyard, century-old grapes, saving their share of the gene pool in the process.

Efforts like these are enough to give us pause for thought the next time we’re tempted by, say, a Merlot from Tuscany or a Chardonnay from Tejo. Instead, we might consider searching out a different bottle, one containing unpronounceable grapes from regions we may never have tried before.

In doing so, we would be playing our own small part in helping to save the last of Europe’s purely European grapes.

A version of this article by Paul White first appeared in The World of Fine Wine issue 41, 2013.


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