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  • 01 April 2020
  • People and Inspiration

Free the Grape Seed

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Sowing the Future of Wine

To plant a vine from seed seems the most natural thing in the world; this is how Mother Nature would have intended it. However, our way of reproducing vines does not involve growing seedlings. When a grapevine seed is planted, the vine that appears from the soil will be an entirely new variety, potentially bearing no resemblance to its parents, exactly how human children can either look nothing like their parents, or a lot like them. Hence, in order to guarantee that we achieve the characteristics that we like in our favourite wines, we reproduce vines from cuttings, preserving the genetics of the parent vine. Human beings have spent centuries grafting, selecting and “perfecting” our grape varieties. 

The most commonly used species of grape for wine, vitis vinifera, is almost always hermaphroditic. This means that it has both male and female parts. It reproduces by “selfing” - fertilising the pistil of its own flower. 

In this absence of vine sex, humans have learnt both how to clone grape varieties, to create clonal selections, and also to select vineyard-representative selections that preserve "vine history" and broaden genetic representation, known as massal selections. 

In the 1800s, an event occurred that forced humanity’s hand even further from the seed. A louse named phylloxera was imported to Europe accidentally on cargo ships. Unlike American species of grapevines, the European species, vitis vinifera, has no natural defence mechanism to cope with the louse, which attacks the root systems and leaves of the vine. This led to what became known as The Great Wine Blight, in which almost the entirety of European vineyards was wiped out. Thankfully, two French winegrowers, Leo Laliman and Gaston Bazille, suggested that if vinifera could be grafted onto the rootstocks of these resistant American species, this could perpetuate it and save it from impending doom. It worked.

Although vitis vinifera was saved, the arrival of phylloxera on the scene meant that if a seedling was given the chance to grow, it would likely be sentenced to death. The notion of planting from seed had been all but abandoned. 

Winemaker Philippe Pacalet

Philippe Pacalet, Burgundian winemaker, explains that monks and individuals interested in grape breeding used to plant from seed, but we have little specific historical evidence remaining, as many papers were lost in the fires of the French revolution. 

He also believes that the grapevine is in grave trouble.

"Alarm bells are ringing. There is a lot of research that needs to be done. Our way of reproducing grapevines continually by cuttings is not sustainable, and it is leading to the degeneration of the vine."

In the Dolomites, Italy, Elisabetta Foradori is considered the saviour of the grape variety, Teroldego. In a region that grew through clonal, volume-focused propagation, she set out to work with old vine conservation and massal selections. However, even with massal selection, she noticed that diversity was restricted. In 2002 she was introduced to the notion of seed propagation by a friend at Milan University, so she papered around her old vines to ensure the vines self-pollinated. The resulting seeds were propagated and 5,000 vines were planted, of which around 500 began to produce fruit after five years. They have been carefully studied, and she has selected 20 that have similar yet slightly different characteristics to her existing Teroldego.

Foradori Seedling of Teroldego

“It is a very long and difficult way.” She pauses: “well, for normal people. Our idea is not to create a new Teroldego, but from this little family of something similar to Teroldego, we wish to introduce new vines to replace the dead ones, so that we bring in diversity.” 

She muses,

“There is a big movement around not just the seed but regeneration of the vine. It’s the biggest problem for the next century. Scientists want to carry out GMO. They want to make resistant local varieties, but if they do this we’ll just have one clone. They are saying it’s an ecological way to work but it’s the opposite; there is no diversity. If you don’t have diversity, then you don’t have life. We need to work with the old varieties in a way that promotes diversity, not reduces it. We need a big family of different genetics to make the vineyard stronger: more resistant.”

She is carrying out microvinifications from her 20 chosen seedlings. Three of these produce white fruit, which is possible even for the offspring of red varieties; again, not dissimilar to how a child can have blonde or brown hair. She plans to do further research with these.

In the Swartland, South Africa, Eben Sadie of the Sadie Family Wines firstly sees massal selection of crucial importance “in a world that is clone obsessed.” He also has some seedlings; “for the next chapter. We must master massal first, and only then on top of that can one put the seed vine propagation layer.”

Eben Sadie

In the Loire, Nicolas Joly of Coulée de Serrant, famous in the wine world for his work and teachings on biodynamics, selected seeds from some of his healthiest and oldest vines fifteen years ago. He entrusted them to a well-known nurseryman in Burgundy to be raised and nurtured with biodynamic preparations. Sadly, they didn’t survive in the vineyard; they were too weak and did not produce fruit. Nicolas had to make the difficult decision of pulling them up. He states, 

"Rudolf Steiner actually gave us the reasoning for this when he explained that the fermentation of grape berries is much more powerful than those of other fruits, such as apples. Instead of the fructification forces of the grape heading to the seed, many of these forces remain in the berry itself."

Joly has since embarked on a new project: planting vine-eye cuttings.

Centuries ago, while Charles Darwin was writing on evolution, he was also carrying out a somewhat more niche experiment. He was crossing different breeds of his pigeons. In doing so, he produced a pigeon that had virtually identical characteristics to a wild rock pigeon. He called this "the principle of reversion to ancestral characters."

When two birds of distinct breeds and colours are crossed, their offspring can show marking and colourations of an ordinary rock dove. This suggestion of reversion was hugely controversial at the time, but modern-day genome sequencing carried out by the University of Utah, BGI-Shenzhen and the University of Copenhagen supports the theory that all domestic breeds of pigeons indeed descend from the wild rock dove. How does this relate to wine? Well… what would happen if somebody tried to find the original features of Pinot Noir?

Rajat Parr & Pinot Noir's seedling child

From a painstaking project that will take decades, if not a lifetime, Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman of Domaine de la Côte in Santa Barbara County are working to refresh the genetic material of Pinot Noir. They are hoping to give birth to new relatives of the variety that both reflect its ancient history and that are better suited to Domaine de la Côte’s unique microclimate and terroir.

Sashi contemplates,

“If you speak to biological geneticists about our experiments, they say that we are opening up Pandora’s Box to the DNA of Pinot Noir. When we talk about Pinot Noir, I think people do not understand that we are probably not talking about one plant; there are likely many different varieties within what we deem to be Pinot Noir, for example if you think of the radical difference of Pinot Droite in Chambolle-Musigny to the neighbouring Pinot Noir of Morey-Saint-Denis… Pinot Noir has been propagated for so long. That is the problem. It is likely why it is so frail; you are not refreshing genetic material. It is like a human being that is 300-400 years old, being kept alive.” 

Sashi Moorman

They planted 20,000 seeds, of which 7,000 germinated and gave birth to the seedlings. They found their home on one acre of land on the Memorious plot when the domaine was first planted in 2007, and it is from the seedlings that Memorious takes its name; from this Memory of Pinot Noir. 4,000 have survived. 

The earth is dry, with high pH and low temperatures, inhospitable to phylloxera. Without this, the project would have been impossible. The seeds were sourced from an entirely isolated vineyard of Pinot Noir (Dijon and Swan clones), thereby with no chance of cross pollination from other varieties. 

In Sashi’s words, “If you have a poodle and cross it with a poodle, what do you call the poodle? Yes, it’s a new individual but it’s still a poodle.”

There is immense variation amongst the seedlings. Some are white, some pink, and some red; some resembling Pinot Noir more than others. The red plants have been tagged and monitored. Some vines bizarrely seem to be deviating from year to year, even turning pink after having been red previously. Only the vines that create perfect flowers with red clustered fruit that look and tastes like Pinot Noir year on year will reach the next step. This is likely to be less than 1% of the original seedlings. Eventually, when they have been checked for virus or defects, they will be grafted onto own-rooted Pinot Noir, and planted directly. No wine has yet been made from them.

A white seedling: will not be propagated

A gris seedling: will not be propagated

Red seedling offspring! More promising! Will be tagged and monitored

Meanwhile, in Santa Cruz, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon is carrying out something similar at his vineyard "Popelouchum", named after the Mutsun people's own name for their historical settlement.

He defines this as “varietal auto-tuning,” and he is doing it with the variety Sérine, a sort of proto-Syrah, as well as the Italian variety Rossese, also known as Tibouren in France, but which Randall believes possesses small, significant differences. Randall emphasises,

“95%+ of offspring will certainly be 'inferior' to its parents. The trick is finding the few individuals that possess 'superior' characteristics."

Randall is selecting plants expressing varietal intensity for Sérine, which he grossly correlates with rotundone (pepper) production. He is also seeking superior stomatal regulation, as this is Sérine/Syrah’s “tragic flaw”; it does not regulate water stress conditions in its leaves well. 

Sérine vineyard at Popelouchum. These little seedlings might not look like much now, but they could be the future.

He believes that both Sérine/Syrah and Rossesse/Tibouren have significant differences. While they are “genetically identical” according to DNA testing, they portray themselves in very different lights. Sérine, native to the Côte-Rotie, is more flavourful, with smaller berries, tighter bunches and more acidity. Meanwhile, he emphasises that the Italian vines of the grape variety Rossesse, the Italian name for Tibouren, do not possess the same uneven ripening characteristics as their French counterparts do.

He adds, “It is my belief that perhaps a collection of grapes, most in some sense ‘inferior’ to their parents, may well produce a more interesting wine than one from a single ‘superior’ selection.”

As if this wasn't already an ambitious project, he is also planning to breed 10,000 new varieties from seed, from two different parents from two different lineages. He emphasises that this will almost certainly result in offspring that are "healthier" than the self-crosses, but the real question is what sort of wine will these grapes produce.  

He muses, “I think that via creating such a vast number of new varieties, at least a few should have interesting flavour characteristics, and hopefully some might have interesting agronomic qualities, such as being disease resistant or tolerant to drought. I have the belief that in fact a wine produced from grapes of an extremely diverse population (but which shares certain common characteristics, like similar ripening profiles) may well be utterly unique and far more interesting than one made from a genetically smaller population. By actively suppressing the expression of varietal characteristics, this may well be an interesting strategy for allowing the expression of soil characteristics in the wine to shine through. This is presuming, of course, that the terroir is particularly expressive and that the farming is done in such a way (biodynamic farming/ no-till, etc.) that encourages the expression of the terroir."

A rare example of a wild vine (Vitis vinifera sylvestris) in SW France

Finally, in one pocket of France, a man who wishes to remain unnamed is experimenting with a tiny seedling nursery planted a few years ago. He has a goal: regenerating vine energy and bringing this energy to his other vineyards. He is undertaking this with the wild vine, V. vinifera sylvestris; the very vine that gave birth to our modern-day grapevine thousands of years ago. There are a handful of these ancient wild vines left in Southwest France. He believes they are capable of exuding pure energy back to our soils, regenerating vibrations through the ecosystem of a vineyard. 

These souls’ dedication to the grapevine is for future generations. Just as winemakers such as Abruzzo's Valentini and France's massal selection nurseryman Lilian Bérillon have worked for decades to restore high quality massal selections for us, these viticulturists are working to ensure that future generations may have genetic diversity to produce wines that deeply move us, inspire us and arouse emotion in us. For what else is fine wine? 

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