Rod Byers: Back to the future
We have all been obsessed with COVID-19. But the world still turns. Here are a couple of stories you might have missed.
The first one falls into the be-careful-what-you-ask-for category. One of the potential side effects of the coronavirus is a loss of smell. Vitisphere reported last month that the Union des OEnoloques, the French Winemaker’s Organization, sent out an industry taste and smell survey and discovered that 68% of infected respondents lost their sense of smell.
What they were not expecting was that 14% of total respondents had already lost it. Yikes. I thought a well-trained sense of smell was a winemaker’s super power. I once knew a blind winemaker but an anosmiac?
Because COVID is such an attention grabber it has pushed climate change into the background. But that doesn’t mean it has gone away. Last month the international edition of The Drinks Business posted a story suggesting an ancient vineyard in the Pyrenees may offer a solution.
The obscure Sarragachies Vineyard, located in the Saint Mont district of the French Pyrenees, is the oldest vineyard in France dating to the early 1800s. This pre-phylloxera vineyard contains as many as 21 different grape varieties, seven of which are unknown. It is the only vineyard in France classified as an historical monument.
Why is this vineyard important, you’re wondering? But first, in the I-always-thought-it-was-true category, this story triggered an old memory. Years ago, in April 1980 to be precise, New York City based wine magazine Vintage published an article by then editor Phillip Seldon about the never before discovered fine wine region of Domgelac, cut off from the modern world, lost in the folds of the Pyrenees Mountains.
Seldon recounted the story of his trip to Domgelac, accompanied by renowned California wine historian Charles Sullivan. The story referred to an unknown grape of ancestral origins. The tasting notes that accompanied the story included wines dating back to 1789.
I was a young student of wine at the time, devouring information about Barolo and Pauillac and Montrachet. I put Domgelac on the list of places to go given the opportunity.
Thirty years later I was planning a trip to the Pyrenees. With some effort I got Mr. Sullivan’s phone number and called. What could he tell me about Domgelac?
“Domgelac?” he answered. “We made that up.”
“Oh,” I mumbled. “Well, never mind.”
I couldn’t help but wonder, was Barolo a real place?
I digress, back to the Sarragachies Vineyard. It does exist and does contain ancient vines of unknown origins. The reason that is important is because more than any other crop, grapes are sensitive to temperature change. Coping with increasing temperatures is the single biggest threat to the world’s fine wine regions today.
Like the phylloxera epidemic of the 1880s, not finding a solution imperils the very future of historic regions. Similar to finding an unknown plant with important medicinal properties deep in the Amazon, the Sarragachies Vineyard is immune to fungal disease and tolerates extreme temperatures. Researchers are studying the vines to unlock their secrets.
So Domgelac doesn’t exist, or does it?
Sticking to climate change the next story is from the Is-this-good-or-bad category. Ritoban Mukherjee, writing for Mental Floss online wrote a piece on the genetic frailty of grape vines and their increased reliance on pesticides to ward off disease. Back in the day biologists would cross two vines to promote positive characteristics and diminish negative ones. It was exceedingly slow taking years and decades.
By unlocking the genetic code, biologists can now determine the exact sequencing of genes contained within each cell’s DNA. Using DNA markers they can quickly identify seedlings with the appropriate markers, discarding the others, saving years of natural trial and error testing.
Here’s the rub. When you cross two vines the offspring needs to be called something else. Naturally occurring clonal variations are one thing. There are many different pinot noir clones but they’re all called pinot noir. Deliberate crosses require a new name.
The University of California at Davis Viticulture Department has been working on a genetic cross to fight Pierce’s Disease for 20 years. They recently introduced five new varieties.
The three reds are camminare noir, paseante noir and errante noir, all very much sounding like Esperanto. The whites are ambulo blanc and caminante blanc. Although supply is limited the vines are currently for sale.
While it may be a while before those names roll off our tongues, in case you think no one cares, Pierce’s Disease costs California grape growers more than $100 million every year.
The new science of gene editing solves the name problem but comes with others. Geneticists now use CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that allows them to remove or replace tiny pieces of DNA. Because it is not technically a cross, it doesn’t require a new name.
So far consumers are showing reluctance to accept genetically modified food products. We’ll see when it comes to chardonnay.
In one recent study involving chardonnay, researchers developed resistance to downy mildew by identifying and removing three genes that invited downy mildew outbreaks. You know growers are going to want that. Do you?
Much of the focus of gene editing is on disease resistance and reduced pesticide usage. But it seems a safe bet that somebody is tinkering with cabernet sauvignon, figuring out how to make it more heat tolerant.
It’s a brave new world, whether you can smell it or not.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-802-7172.
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