Ancient Wine Grapes in France: New Evidence

A recent genetic study has provided more evidence around ancient wine grapes in France.  The analysis was conducted by Jazmon Ramos Madrigal at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and looked at French grape seeds from several different time periods.  Some of the seeds dated to the Iron Age up to 2500 years ago while others were from the time of the Roman occupation 500 years later as well as samples from the medieval era about 1000 years ago.

Wine grape species at the highest level can be divided into those that are wild varieties versus those that are cultivated.  The seeds and vines of these two have a number of different physical and biological characteristics.  For wine drinkers the most significant variation is that wild grapes do not make a very good wine while cultivated grapes, especially those from Europe, are the basis of almost all the main wine grapes produced today.

One result of the study was proof that the French seeds analyzed from all these timeframes were of the cultivated variety and not wild, indicating conscious development of grapes for wine over a couple of millennia ago in Western Europe.   The process of natural genetic mutation has been at work and therefore the seeds from the Iron Age have less similarity to modern wine grapes than those from the Roman and medieval time periods.   Therefore, over the last several centuries the wine grape varieties have only had a minimal amount of genetic changes.  This fact is further borne out by the number of modern day wine grapes that had their origin in the Middle Ages such as Chardonnay.

The seed that is the result of the union between two grapes will always be different from the parents either slightly or to a greater extent.  Therefore, in order to replicate a particular wine grape, the grower must plant cuttings from the desired vine rather than seeds.  Cuttings will provide essentially an exact clone of the preferred grape but seeds may produce a grape that is wholly different.  Given the similarity between the ancient seeds reviewed in the Denmark research and modern grapes, it is clear that the process of using grapevine cuttings for propagation was well employed these thousands of years ago.

A final output of the study from Denmark showed that one of the grape seeds from about 900 years ago was shown to be genetically identical to the wine grape called Savagnin.  This grape is one of the oldest known to have been cultivated and has been referred to as one of a small set called “the founder grapes” for being the earliest known varieties closest to transformation from wild.

The Savagnin grape is generally only known under that name in the Jura area of eastern France.  In other areas this same grape is known as Traminer and the more widely known Gewurtztraminer from Germany.  Savagnin was first identified in the fourteenth century when it was also called by the name “Nature”.  Savagnin is actually the word “Sauvignon” in the Jura dialect.  Sauvignon comes from the French word “sauvage” which means “wild” and likely derives from the grape’s close relation to being a wild grape not long before cultivation.

If you want to read the article that was the basis for this post please see:

SNP Study Squeezes French Wine Clues from Ancient Grape Seeds by Andrea Anderson in GenomeWeb (January 15, 2018).

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