Scientists get to the root of ancient case of sour grapes

Dec 18, 2009
Scientists get to the root of ancient case of sour grapes

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists in Cambridge have discovered that a lowly grape variety grown by peasants - but despised by noblemen - during the Middle Ages was the mother of many of today’s greatest grape varieties, including the Chardonnay used in Champagne.

Several venerable grape varieties - including Chardonnay and Gamay noir - stem from crosses between Pinot noir and Gouais blanc. Until now, which variety was the father and which the mother has been a mystery.

Using the same kind of that forensic scientists use for human DNA fingerprinting, the team from the University of Cambridge examined DNA from the chloroplasts of 12 widely grown grape varieties.

Chloroplasts are structures in plant cells where takes place. Like most plants, the DNA in chloroplasts of grape vines is inherited from the mother.

The scientists looked at microsatellites - regions of DNA that are highly variable and are therefore useful for tracking family trees - and found that Gouais blanc was the maternal parent of Aligoté, Auxerrois, Bachet, Chardonnay, Franc noir, Gamay noir, Melon, Romorantin and Sacy. Pinot noir was the maternal parent for Aubin vert, Knipperlé and Roublot.

Scientists and wine producers are interested in grapes' maternal line because the mother provides more of the offspring's DNA than the father, and so is more important in genetic terms. In other economically significant plants the chloroplast genes can contribute to important characteristics such as tolerance to cold and fungal attack.

According to Professor Christopher Howe of the University of Cambridge, one of the study's authors: "It is ironic that the despised grape Gouais blanc was not just a parent for several of the world's best-known and most important varieties, such as Chardonnay and Gamay noir, it was the maternal parent, providing additional and potentially determining important characteristics of the offspring."

"This is a striking conclusion, as Gouais is generally considered a highly inferior variety, and its cultivation was banned for many years in parts of Europe."

Both Pinot noir and Gouais blanc were widely grown in north-eastern France during the Middle Ages. But while Pinot was grown in vineyards owned by the church and aristocracy, peasants grew Gouais.

Between the late Sixteenth and the Eighteenth Centuries, several attempts were made to ban Gouais blanc. In 1732, an act of the Parlement of Besancon tried to eliminate the grape, describing it as "rustic", "inferior" but also "high-yielding". The Parlement of Metz took similar steps the same year.

Although their attempts to ban the grape failed, Gouais largely disappeared at the end of the Nineteenth Century and now survives only in a few vineyards and reference collections around the world.

Co-author of the study John Haeger of Stanford University said: "Gouais was held in low esteem in the late medieval and early modern periods. Typically, varieties of this sort were grown on flat land by peasants. Good vineyards, on the other hand, growing better and lower yielding varieties were owned and farmed under the supervision of the church or nobility."

"Many of the 'bans' were designed either to favour aristocrats and monastic orders over peasants, or force more arable land into the production of cereals and legumes to eliminate food shortages."

The results are published this month in Biology Letters.

Explore further: Vermicompost leachate improves tomato seedling growth

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Plant geneticists find veritas in vino

Dec 19, 2007

Viticulture, the growing of grapes (Vitis vinifera) chiefly to make wine, is an ancient form of agriculture, evidence of which has been found from the Neolithic and Early Bronze Ages. We have a detailed understanding of how ...

Finding the white wine difference

Mar 05, 2007

A CSIRO research team has pinpointed the genetic difference between red (or black) and white grapes – a discovery which could lead to the production of new varieties of grapes and ultimately new wines.

Wine and cheese: serious science

Oct 27, 2005

Twenty-seven food and wine experts recently met in Summerland, Canada, to determine ideal cheese-wine parings using scientific sensory methodology.

Recommended for you

Vermicompost leachate improves tomato seedling growth

Nov 21, 2014

Worldwide, drought conditions, extreme temperatures, and high soil saline content all have negative effects on tomato crops. These natural processes reduce soil nutrient content and lifespan, result in reduced plant growth ...

Plant immunity comes at a price

Nov 21, 2014

Plants are under permanent attack by a multitude of pathogens. To win the battle against fungi, bacteria, viruses and other pathogens, they have developed a complex and effective immune system. And just as ...

Evolution: The genetic connivances of digits and genitals

Nov 20, 2014

During the development of mammals, the growth and organization of digits are orchestrated by Hox genes, which are activated very early in precise regions of the embryo. These "architect genes" are themselves regulated by ...

Surrogate sushi: Japan biotech for bluefin tuna

Nov 20, 2014

Of all the overfished fish in the seas, luscious, fatty bluefin tuna are among the most threatened. Marine scientist Goro Yamazaki, who is known in this seaside community as "Young Mr. Fish," is working to ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.