The New York Times reported last week that grape vines weren’t having enough sex. At first glance, this may not seem like a major problem (insert sex joke here). Alas, it is a big deal. Look at the mess of a family tree that has been created as a result:
A geneticist from Cornell determined that 75% of wine grape varieties are as closely related as a parent and child or brother and sister. This is as simple as the NYT could break it down, and I won’t try to compete:
“Thus merlot is intimately related to cabernet franc, which is a parent of cabernet sauvignon, whose other parent is sauvignon blanc, the daughter of traminer, which is also a progenitor of pinot noir, a parent of chardonnay.”
What happened to cause this? The ease of propagating vines through grafting, phylloxera, wine laws, and our palates. As a result of so much genetic similarity, the grapes are more susecptible to a wide range of pests, and vineyard managers have resorted to herbicides, fungicides and other nasty chemicals.
The Times points out three options: add genes for pest resistance, go organic, breed sturdier varieties.
Big problems with these three options: folks don’t like genetically modified plants, grape vines can have a hard time surviving in an organic environment, and breeding new varieties takes time, money and we’re not guaranteed a tasty result.
The article went on to discuss a new plant breeding method, called genomic selection or marker-assisted breeding, which would enable scientisits to explore the grape genome.