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July 11, 2024

Exploring the Roots of Grapevine Domestication: A Journey Through Time and Genetics

The domestication of grapevines, Vitis vinifera, is a narrative deeply entwined with human civilization itself. Over thousands of years, these plants have not only adapted to various climates and geographies but have also been shaped by human hands into the myriad varieties we know today. A recent comprehensive study by Dong et al., published in the prestigious journal Science, offers groundbreaking insights into this journey, elucidating the dual domestication processes and the impact of ancient climates on grapevine evolution.

The study leverages an expansive dataset of 3,525 grapevine accessions, both wild and cultivated, from across the globe. This analysis brings to light how the Pleistocene era's harsh climate conditions drove the diversification of grapevines into distinct ecotypes. These ecotypes eventually faced severe habitat fragmentation, setting the stage for human intervention in the Neolithic period, around 11,000 years ago, particularly in regions like Western Asia and the Caucasus in Georgia.

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What is particularly fascinating about this study is the evidence suggesting simultaneous domestication pathways for both wine and table grapes. This contradicts the long-held belief that domestication was a linear process, underscoring the complexity of agricultural practices in ancient civilizations. As these early farmers spread across Europe, they brought with them their cultivated grapevines. These plants interbred with local wild grape varieties, creating a rich genetic tapestry that laid the foundation for the diverse grapevine varieties we cultivate today.

Further insights from the study reveal how specific genetic variants were selected for attributes highly valued by ancient viticulturists, such as berry color, sweetness, and the distinctive muscat flavor. These traits were not just beneficial for improving the quality and palatability of grapes but also played a crucial role in the survival of cultivars through varying climatic conditions.

Moreover, the study sheds light on the cultural significance of grapevines, illustrating how viticulture was more than just agricultural activity; it was a cultural hallmark of major Eurasian civilizations. The spread of grapevines through ancient trade routes underscores their importance in cultural exchanges and economic activities, acting as agents of agricultural and social change.

This rich historical and genetic narrative not only enhances our understanding of grapevine domestication but also has practical implications for contemporary viticulture. By unraveling the genetic basis for certain traits and their evolutionary advantages, viticulturists and scientists can better manage and possibly expand the genetic diversity of grapevine populations. This is crucial for developing more resilient varieties that can withstand the challenges posed by changing climates and evolving pest pressures.

In essence, the journey of grapevine domestication is a testament to human ingenuity and adaptability. It reflects a broader story of how humans have continually interacted with their environment, not just adapting to it but actively shaping it. As we face modern challenges in agriculture and sustainability, the lessons from our Neolithic ancestors, who first cultivated these vines, remain ever relevant, reminding us of the intricate relationship between culture, agriculture, and the environment.

Among the grape varieties grown & made here on the Atze's estate, Grenache and Shiraz (also known as Syrah) are some of the oldest in terms of cultivation and domestication.

Grenache: Believed to have been domesticated from Vitis vinifera ssp. sylvestris during the Neolithic period, around 6,000 years ago in Spain, Grenache is one of the oldest grape varieties. Its cultivation spread throughout Spain and later to other Mediterranean countries, making it a foundational variety in many regional wines.

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Shiraz/Syrah: Shiraz, known as Syrah in France and other parts of the world, has a similarly ancient lineage, though its exact origins are slightly more recent compared to Grenache. Syrah is traditionally believed to have been cultivated in the Rhône region of France since Roman times. Historical records suggest that the grape was well established by the 13th century, though DNA analysis indicates that it could be the result of a natural crossing between two older grapes from southeastern France, Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche, which would place its cultivation history possibly around the same time as Grenache.

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Cabernet Sauvignon: This grape emerged from a natural crossing of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc during the 17th century, making it much younger than Grenache and Syrah. It has since become one of the most widely recognized grapes in the world.

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Vermentino: Known for its cultivation in the Mediterranean, particularly in regions like Sardinia and Corsica, Vermentino's history dates back to at least the 13th century, making it ancient but not as old as Grenache or Syrah.

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Mataro (Mourvèdre) and Montepulciano also boast long and rich histories, commonly associated with the medieval period, while Durif (Petite Sirah), developed in the late 19th century, is much newer.

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In terms of the oldest grape variety among those mentioned, Grenache likely takes precedence, with its Neolithic origins, closely followed by Shiraz, whose cultivation dates back to Roman times in the Rhône region.

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