The grape of things to come

Wine grapes are under threat from a combination of climate change and a rising backlash again the use of fungicides. Robert Joseph looks at the thorny question of hybrids and wonders if there isn’t a better solution.

Photo by Suda Guan on Unsplash
Photo by Suda Guan on Unsplash

“I have seen the future and it works.”

Since US journalist, Lincoln Steffens first penned those words in 1919, they have had a peculiar resonance.

I’m not claiming to have ‘seen’ the future of wine, but the recent tasting I did of wines from new grape varieties – 12 German, one Swiss – offered me a glimpse of what it may hold. The reds used Acolon, Cabernet Dorio and Cabernet Dorsa, which are all crossings of Blaufränkisch and Dornfelder, though Cabernet Dorsa is usually said to include Cabernet Sauvignon. There was Cabernet Cubin (Cabernet Sauvignon/Blaufrankisch); Cabernet Mitos (Blaufränkisch/Teinturier du Cher); Domina (Pinot Noir/ Blauer Portuguiser) and Regent (Diana/Chambourcin). All of these have been created to help viticulturists ripen healthy crops more reliably, without the need for the high levels of fungicide and pesticides that are common today. Regent, which now covers 1,800ha of German vineyards (around 2% of the total) is a hybrid; the others are vinifera. 

The wines I sampled were produced between 2016 and 2019 by a range of producers in several regions and are all commercially available. While the wines were competently made, either in a dry or off-dry style, none of them struck me as having truly appealing fruit, spice or complexity. To be blunt, I would rather drink beer or cider.

Consumers aren’t entirely convinced either. A German winemaker I met who has six hectares of Regent said that he no longer sells it as a varietal; his customers won’t buy it. As a producer, he’s not completely in love with it either. Despite the supposedly resistant characteristics it gains from having a Vitis labrusca/vinifera hybrid as a parent, it apparently also suffers from fungal problems – they just arrive later in the season.

Many wine researchers however, confronted with climate change, ever tighter restrictions on pesticides and fungicides and the prospects of a Covid-19-type vine virus, believe that new crossings and hybrids are the shape of things to come. In 2017, my friend, the Chinese expert Li Demei, suggested that Marselan, the heat- and disease-resistant child of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, could become the signature grape of his country.

And there are more new crossings emerging all the time. Last year, UC Davis released five new crossings bred for resistance to the deadly Pierce’s disease. There are three reds –  Camminare Noir; Paseante Noir and Errante Noir, and two whites – Ambulo Blanc and Caminante Blanc. 

I have enjoyed some Marselan wines – Grace Vineyards in China makes a good one – just as I’ve appreciated well-made examples of Scheurebe, Müller-Thurgau and Pinotage, but none of these crossings have joined the ranks of my favourite wines. Is Errante Noir any more seductive?

There is a possible alternative to crossings and hybrids.  

As Hrishi Poola revealed in in early 2018, scientists can now use CRISPR technology to edit existing grape varieties, rather than forcing them to procreate with each other. Because it involves working on genes, CRISPR arouses the same fears as the kind of genetic modification that uses jellyfish to create fluorescent pigs and sheep. But, as Poola says, CRISPR does not have to involve this kind of behaviour (though, admittedly it can). “Microbes have been using [CRISPR] for millions of years, as a bacterial immune system against viruses.” 

Another believer in the technology, former professor of grape genetics at UC Davis, Carole Meredith explained a few months later that the “big advantage of gene editing over transgenic genetic modification is that no foreign DNA is introduced”.  This means that, in theory at least, the integrity of the specific grape variety can be maintained. As Peter Oudemans a plant pathologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey told Wine Enthusiast, “People know and recognize what Chardonnay tastes like…if you start messing with [it] in terms of conventional breeding, you’re going to change the flavor and odor profile to a point that it may no longer be a Chardonnay.” Oudemans’ colleague, Rong Di, is even more specific; she and her team have been editing the Chardonnay 76 Dijon clone to be resistant to Downy Mildew. What works for Chardonnay 76 might apply to other varieties and clones.

Things are moving fast in the world of genetic research. Last year technology was released that makes it possible to “rapidly find and validate 2000 markers in diverse grape varieties and species”. Researchers can use it to “mix and amplify DNA from up to 4,000 individual samples and simultaneously sequence thousands of different markers of each sample” and “obtain a detailed map of the entire genome for each of the 4000 individuals in one batch”.

The problem, however, as Carole Meredith acknowledges is that even if researchers like Rong Di succeed in creating resistant varieties whose wines are identical to the ones we enjoy today, “there will be considerable resistance among consumers and the wine trade. People fear that which they do not understand, and very few non-scientists have any understanding of genetic modification.”

The future that Lincoln Steffens was so pleased to see in 1919 was, of course, the Soviet Union, and he was far from alone in his enthusiasm for what he saw. I’m not saying that a wine world that is increasingly made up of crossings and hybrids will necessarily be grim, but it might be one in which I’d be drinking a lot of other beverages.

Which is why, while there’s no guarantee that CRISPR editing will deliver the holy grail, it’s the kind of future I’d rather see, and taste.

Robert Joseph



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