Wine grape vines haven’t been getting busy

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.

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Filed under Alcohol in the News, Wine

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