A team of European scientists has, for the first time, unlocked the genome of the common grapevine, Vitis vinifera—a type of vine commonly used in the production of Pinot Noir.
Scientists expect that their discovery, published in the British journal Nature, will make it possible for geneticists to assist in the development of new, more resistant varieties of grape and the production of superior wines.
The multinational project, which involved research centers in Australia, France, Chile, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United States, found that the grape genome has around 480 million ‘letters’ and just over 30,000 protein-coding genes.
In fact, the research revealed that the grapevine contains more than twice as many genes involved in producing essential oils and aromas as other plants whose genomes have been sequenced.
But we shouldn’t expect the sequencing of the grape genome to bring immediate changes to consumers, says Carole Meredith, the University of California, Davis geneticist who pioneered the use of DNA typing to differentiate between varieties of Vitis vinifera, and owner of the Lagier-Meredith vineyard. “This is not a dramatic development from the consumer’s point of view, but it is an incremental gain in knowledge that will ultimately help the consumer,” Meredith told Wine Enthusiast.
According to the researchers, the large number of aromatic genes suggests that the diversity of wine flavors could be traced to the genome level. In contrast, other plants whose genomes have been sequenced contain just 30 to 40 genes.
“Ultimately this may help us understand how certain flavors are produced in certain circumstances, but it’s a long way from sequencing the genes, to actually knowing which genes are key,” says Meredith. “To fully understand the gene can take several teams of scientists as long as 10 years.”
The vine was found to have 89 functional genes that contribute to the production of resins, essential oils and aromas, which determine the aromatic features of the wine.
Understanding the grape genome paves the way for further research, with already attempting to isolate a gene that can increase resistance to oidium, a common form of mildew to which Pinot Noir is especially vulnerable.
The analysis also identified 43 genes involved in the production of resveratrol, which has been associated with the health benefits of drinking moderate amounts of red wine.
Vitis vinifera, which is one of the first vines to be domesticated, was first cultivated some 2,000 years ago. It is grown around the world—including the United States—but is most associated with the Burgundy region of France.