Seeds of grapes used in the production of wine, found in archaeological sites across Europe, have been genetically tested and tell a story of continuity from ancient Rome until this very day. It seems some the wine drunk by Romans and that quaffed through the Middle Ages and on to modernity would have been produced with very similar grape varieties to those being used today. Such has been the continuity of use of grape vines through the ages.
The aim of the research was to understand the ancestry of winemaking in France, which has perplexed people for many years. Along with revealing the history behind grape varieties, it is also providing data that shows that the wine industry could be vulnerable because of climate change.
The study involved a large multidisciplinary team of researchers from a number of European countries, including Britain, Denmark, France, and Germany. It was funded by a Danish and a French research agency. The researchers sought to understand the genomes of ancient grapes. Their findings were published in the academic journal Nature Plants.
Comparing the old grape DNA with the new
The researchers used a large database containing information on the genomes of many modern grapes, used in winemaking. These were compared with the genetics of grape seeds found in a number of archaeological sites. Technology News reports that ‘researchers were able to test and compare 28 archaeological seeds from French sites dating back to the Iron Age, Roman era, and medieval period’. In the recent past DNA testing was used to investigate the ancestry of the grapes grown in modern vineyards. However, according to Decanter.com ‘there remain several blanks in the family jig-saw of modern-day varieties’.
Waterlogged 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 that are used to identify the ancestry of modern humans. Phys.org reports that the experts were able to draw “genetic connections between seeds from different archaeological sites”.
Then by comparing the genomes, they could establish the relationship between ancient seeds and modern varieties of vines.
The Roman connection
The researchers ‘found that the archaeological samples were closely related to western European cultivars used for winemaking today’ according to Nature Plants. The multidiscipline team was able to find genetic traces that indicate that Roman and later grapes were related. From the seeds, some ‘18 distinct genetic signatures, including one set of genetically identical seeds from two Roman sites’ was established according to Phys.org.
These two Roman sites were 400 miles (600km) apart and they date back two millennia. They are also interestingly somewhat related to many grapes still grown in French Alpine vineyards. This indicates a great deal of continuity in the propagation of grapes in Western Europe from Roman times. This was mainly because of the skills of winemakers with asexual reproduction and the use of wine cuttings, which maintained the genetic signatures of the grapes.
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Bacchus, Roman god of agriculture, wine and fertility by Peter Paul Rubens. ( Public Domain )
The latest research means that it is possible to identify the connections between Roman and modern wine . Because of the writings of classical authors such as Pliny the Elder we know the name of many Roman wines. Dr. Jazmín Ramos-Madrigal, one of the co-authors of the study stated that “Now we have the opportunity to use genetics to know exactly what the Romans were growing in their vineyards”, reports Technology News .
Dr. Nathan Wales, of the University of York, one of the research team, stated that ‘Syrah-Mondeuse Blanche family and the Pinot-Savagnin family’ can trace their ancestry back to Roman vineyards, according to Phys.org. This means that the people who inhabited the Roman Empire made wine that was similar to ours and tasted much the same. However, it seems that tastes have changed and some popular grapes in the past are no longer as 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 match between a medieval seed from a vineyard in Orleans (France) and the grape used for the production of Savagnin Blanc. This is a wine that is not very popular, but it is still being produced and is often known as Traminer Weiss.
An ancient savagnin blanc grape seed has been found to have a direct relation to the modern variety. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The threat of global warming
The genetic inheritance of many modern wine-grapes shows a great deal of continuity with the past. This means that there is a lack of genetic diversity and this could be problematic, and even pose an existential risk to winemaking in the future, especially as our climate is warming. Global warming and more extreme weather events could pose a real threat to winemaking in the future because they could destroy whole crops, and types of vines could disappear.
This study and others show that there is a need to develop new strains of grapes that are more resilient. National Public Radio quotes Zoë Migicovsky, a Canadian postdoctoral researcher, who studies the resilience of wine as saying that we need to ‘embrace a hardier set of grapes’. Only this can help winemaking to survive but could come at a cost of losing beloved tipples like Merlot and Pinot-Grigio.
The study is an important one, as it is allowing us to better understand the evolution of winemaking. It is also demonstrating how much wine-lovers are indebted to the Romans for their favorite tipple. The research is also indicating that there is a dangerous lack of genetic diversity in grapes and this could leave them vulnerable to changes in the environment.
Top image: Grape DNA sources around Europe had been connected with ancient Roman seeds. Source: Grecaud Paul / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan