Favorite Wine Grapes May Need Genetic Help


“The general public, if you look at the broad numbers, it’s like 60 percent of vineyards around the world, in the New World, have been planted with just five or six varieties of grapes in the last 10 or 20 years. From the Australians to New Zealand to, of course, all of California.”

Science journalist Kevin Begos, the author of the new book Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavor and the Search for the Origins of Wine. He spoke in June at Astor Wines and Spirits in Manhattan. At one point he talked about disease threats to wine grapes.

“So the scientists are starting to get really concerned that this is setting up a perfect scenario for a grape pandemic. Which would seem a little far-fetched, except…we all know that grapes are being reproduced by cuttings, not by seed, to keep the flavor qualities. What that means is they haven’t been evolving for hundreds or thousands of years. Pinot is 2,000 years old, which is kind of the general estimate.

“Since we’ve been cloning it to keep the flavors for roughly 2,000 years, all the insects and pathogens and mildews that attack grape vines have been evolving that whole time. They always figure out new ways to attack the grape vines…

“Wine grape researchers at the leading institutions are saying, look, you’re doing the exact same thing they did during the Irish potato famine, which was plant the same variety of potato all over Ireland, propagate it just from buds, from the shoots coming out of old potatoes. And then when a fungus hit it, it wipes out the whole population. So these are not just hypotheticals…

“So I don’t want to be unduly alarmist, because this could be 50 years down the road, it could be 100 years down the road.”

Or it could be prevented. Because other grapes, which have not been popular for widescale winemaking have kept evolving. And some of these have natural disease resistance. Crossing these wine grape varieties with more popular ones could head off a pandemic before it happens. You can hear more of Kevin Begos’s talk about wine on an upcoming episode of the longform Scientific American podcast Science Talk.

—Steve Mirsky

(The above text is a transcript of this podcast)

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