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French wine with a hint of Rome revealed by old grape DNA



Seeds of grapes used for wine making, found in archaeological sites throughout Europe, have been genetically tested and tell the past of ancient Rome until today. It seems that the wine is drunk by the Romans and which was enchanted through the Middle Ages, and further to modernity would have been produced with very similar grape varieties to those used today. This has been the continuity of the use of grapes of vines over time.

The purpose of the research was to understand the ancestors of wine making in France, who have confused people for many years. Along with revealing the history of grape varieties, it also delivers data that shows that the wine industry can be vulnerable to climate change.

The study involved a large interdisciplinary team of researchers from a number of European countries, including the UK, Denmark, France and Germany. It was funded by a Danish and a French research agency. The researchers sought to understand the genomes of old grapes. Their results were published in the academic journal Nature Plants.

Comparison of the Old Grape DNA with the New

The researchers used a large database containing information on the genomes of many modern grapes used for wine making. These were compared to the genetics of grape seeds found in a number of archaeological sites. Technology News reports that scientists were able to test and compare 28 archaeological seeds from French sites back to the Iron Age, Roman times and the Middle Ages. In recent days, DNA tests were used to investigate the ancestors of grapes grown in modern vineyards. However, according to Decanter.com, there are still more items in the family jigsaw of modern varieties'.

  Water-damped Roman grape seeds like these were genetically tested to examine grape varieties in the past. Credit: L. Bouby, CNRS / ISEM

Water-based Roman grape seeds like these were genetically tested to investigate grape varieties in the past. Credit: L. Bouby, CNRS / ISEM

The European researchers who worked separately but collaborated closely used the same DNA techniques used to identify the ancestors of modern humans. Phys.org reports that the experts were able to draw "genetic links between seeds from various archaeological sites".

By comparing the genomes, they could form the ratio of old seeds to modern vine varieties.

The Roman connection

The researchers found that the archaeological samples were closely related to Western European varieties used for wine making today "according to Nature Plants. The multidisciplinary team could find genetic traces suggesting that Roman and later grapes were related. From the seeds, some 18 different genetic signatures, including a set of genetically identical seeds from two Roman sites, were created according to Phys.org.

These two Roman sites were 400 km apart and they date back two millennia. Interestingly related to many grapes still grown in French alpine vineyards, this indicates a great continuity in the propagation of grapes in Western Europe from Roman times, mainly due to the wine producers' skills of asexual reproduction and the use of vineyards which maintained genetic signatures of the grapes

  Bacchus, Roman god of agriculture, wine and fertility by Peter Pau l Rubens. (Public Domain)

Bacchus, the Roman agricultural god, wine and fertility of Peter Paul Rubens. (19659015) Public Domain )

Recent research means that it is possible to identify the links between Roman and modern wine. Because of the classical writers' writings like Pliny the Elder, we know the name of many Roman wines. Dr. Jazmín Ramos-Madrigal, one of the co-authors of the study stated, "Now we have the opportunity to use genetics to know exactly what the Romans grew in their vineyards," said Technology News.

Dr. Nathan Wales of the University of York, one of the research group, stated that the family "Syrah-Mondeuse Blanche and the Pinot-Savagnin family" can trace their ancestors back to Roman vineyards, according to Phys.org. This means that the people who inhabited the Roman Empire made wine that looked like ours and tasted much the same. However, it seems that flavor has changed and some popular grapes in the past are no longer so popular today.

While the study found a relationship between Roman seeds and modern grapes, they were not directly related. However, the researchers were able to establish a close genetic battle between a medieval seed from a vineyard in Orleans (France) and the grape for the production of Savagnin Blanc. This is a wine that is not very popular, but it is still produced and is often known as the Traminer Weiss.

  An old savagnin blanc grape seed has been shown to have a direct relation to the modern variety. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

An old savagnin blanc grape juice has been shown to have a direct relation to the modern variety. CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The threat of global warming

The modern heritage of many modern grapes shows great continuity with the past. This means that there is a lack of genetic diversity, and it can be problematic and even present an existential risk for wine making in the future, especially as our climate is heated. Global warming and more extreme weather conditions can pose a real threat to wine making in the future because they could destroy entire crops and types of vines can disappear.

This study and others show that there is a need to develop new grapes that are more resistant. National Public Radio quotes Zoë Migicovsky, a Canadian postdoctoral researcher studying the resilience of wine as saying that we should "embrace a harder set of grapes". Only this can help wine making to survive, but could come at a price by losing beloved tipples like Merlot and Pinot-Grigio.

The study is an important one as it allows us to better understand the development of wine making. It also shows how much wine lovers are guilty of the Romans for their favorite flip. The research also indicates that there is a dangerous shortage of genetic diversity in grapes, and it can make them vulnerable to environmental changes.

Top image: Grape DNA sources around Europe had been linked to ancient Roman seeds. Source: Grecaud Paul / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan


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