One of the best known episodes in the 8000-year history of grapevine cultivation led to biological changes that have not been well understood – until now. Through biomolecular detective work, German researchers have uncovered new details about the heredity of Vitis varieties in cultivation today. In the process, they have opened the way to more meaningful classification, accelerated breeding, and more accurate evaluation of the results, potentially breaking a bottleneck in the progress of the wine industry. Their discovery removes a major obstacle to a development already under way – that is, a shift toward grapevine breeding guided by highly specific genetic markers. It may even point the way toward production of European-tasting wines from North American cultivars, free of the “musty” or “foxy” flavors associated with New World grapevines.
In response to the “great European wine blight” of the mid-1800s, growers aimed at preserving the most desirable qualities of European grapes while breeding in the hardiness of North American varieties. These were naturally resistant to native pests that had found their way – by steamship, most likely – across the Atlantic to Europe. Beginning around 1860, the introduction of two North American pests – an aphid and a fungus – nearly destroyed the wine industry, particularly in France. A century ago, many hybrids were in use, but the wine they produced was judged to be so inferior in flavor that winemakers were prohibited from blending them with higher-quality traditional wines.