Genetic analysis has shown that some “noble” grapes are less aristocratic than many people thought
NO OENOPHILE needs reminding that grape varieties can make all the difference between divine wine and plain plonk. But the genesis of those varieties is frequently mysterious, even in Europe where most of them originate. Add to that the confusion of a transatlantic passage, and the pedigree of some of the varieties in California’s vineyards can be as murky as shaken vintage port.
Carole Meredith of the University of California, Davis, has dedicated the past few years to clearing up this genealogical mess. By applying genetic techniques more familiar in the courtroom than the pressing house, she has been able to clarify the relationships between many of the great wine-making grapes that dominate both the old and the new worlds. On the way she has shown that a number of noble grapes have some surprisingly vulgar ancestors.
Dr Meredith’s technique relies on stretches of DNA called microsatellites. These are places where short strings of the chemical “letters” which make up DNA are repeated. In any given species, these microsatellites are found in the same places on the chromosomes of different individuals, but the number of repeats in each place differs from one individual to another. These differences are passed from parent to offspring in the same way that genes are: each individual gets half his microsatellites from his mother and half from his father. So, by looking at enough different microsatellite locations, it is possible to identify someone’s parents with a high degree of confidence.
In humans, microsatellite analysis works well for individuals, but is not much use when it comes to looking at entire populations. Fortunately, this is not a problem in grape detection since all the plants belonging to a particular variety of grapevine are actually one individual, genetically speaking. That is because commercial grapevines are propagated from cuttings and are genetically identical clones. This means that Dr Meredith’s method can reach back into the distant past, and catch a glimpse of the act of cross-fertilisation between two different varieties of grapevine that created the strain that the cuttings have perpetuated.
Dr Meredith first came to fame four years ago, when she showed that cabernet sauvignon, widely reckoned the noblest grape of them all, was a hybrid of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc. She then revealed that a Californian variety called petite sirah was actually two different grapes called durif and peloursin that even wine snobs were unable to tell apart. She also demonstrated that zinfandel, a grape seen by many as uniquely Californian, is actually the same as primitivo, an habitué of Sicily.
Since then, she has torn into the pedigrees of several other well known varieties. A collaboration with Jean-Michel Boursiquot, the curator of France’s national grapevine-variety collection in Montpellier, has revealed that at least 16 varieties, including chardonnay, gamay and aligote, are actually siblings. One of their parents is pinot (which should not, Dr Meredith insists, be called “pinot noir”, since the various pinot grapes, whether noir, blanc or grigio, seem to be minor aberrations caused by mutations within the same clone). That will ruffle no feathers. The other parent, though, is gouais blanc, a grape so déclassé that the French authorities have twice tried to ban it completely.
In case you might think that Dr Meredith’s sole concern is demolishing inflated reputations, the genetic fingerprinting of grapes in this way has some practical applications, too. In the case of zinfandel, it is being used to try to trace the variety back to its roots. (It is not actually native to Sicily, having been imported there a few centuries ago.) This would help California’s growers by allowing them to find new “zin” mutants with which to spice up their existing products, blending subtly new flavours into them.
So far, the trail has led to the Dalmatian coast of Croatia—which is thought to be the homeland of gouais blanc, as well. Dr Meredith has not yet found zinfandel/primitivo lurking in any of the vineyards there, though several close relatives have turned up. But she reckons that a few more summers in these idyllic, sun-kissed islands will allow her to track it down. There’s no hurry.
ALL GOOD WINES TAKE TIME
February 22nd, 2011 Laina McConnell
Serving wine is a ritual for the senses, similar to having British tea. There’s the artful process of wine selection followed by bottle presentation, uncorking, pouring, relishing the initial aroma of the nose, taking the first sip followed by a lengthier taste to judge both body and finish, and so on. The process of serving wine is not meant not be hurried; this ritual is meant to be savored. Even the glassware and wine opener should be selected with care to evoke the occasion’s desired mood. A cheap corkscrew will clearly not evoke the same aesthetic response as a beautiful, antique-plated Rogar Champion wine opener, for example.
Although some people attempt to rush the ritual, wine cannot be hurried. Its flavors open in their own time. While several products exist to help speed up the aeration process, allowing wine time to naturally aerate in the glass or a decanter is essential to any exciting tasting journey. Sipping a very closed wine, then experiencing how its flavor changes as it begins to open make the wine tasting experience a delight. There’s something magical about how a closed wine will, in a few minutes, begin to breathe, allowing its taste to be unlocked more fully. The expectation and surprise that arise as a wine opens is also symbolic of timeless adage that “all good things take time.” There are certainly many good things that take time in this life, and should! Wine tasting–like most aspects of wine’s creation and enjoyment–is definitely among them.
STUDY: ABSTAINING FROM ALCOHOL SIGNIFICANTLY SHORTENS LIFE!
A newly released study shows that regular drinkers are less likely to die prematurely than people who have never indulged in alcohol. You read that right: Time reports that abstaining from alcohol altogether can lead to a shorter life than consistent, moderate drinking.
Surprised? The tightly controlled study, which looked at individuals between ages 55 and 65, spanned a 20-year period and accounted for variables ranging from socioeconomic status to level of physical activity. Led by psychologist Charles Holahan of the University of Texas at Austin, it found that mortality rates were highest for those who had never had a sip, lower for heavy drinkers, and lowest for moderate drinkers who enjoyed one to three drinks per day.
Of the 1,824 study participants, only 41 percent of the moderate drinkers died compared to a whopping 69 percent of the nondrinkers. Meanwhile, the heavy drinkers fared better than those who abstained, with a 60 percent mortality rate. Despite the increased risks for cirrhosis and several types of cancer, not to mention dependency, accidents and poor judgment associated with heavy drinking, those who imbibe are less likely to die than people who stay dry.
A possible explanation for this is that alcohol can be a great social lubricant, and strong social networks are essential for maintaining mental and physical health. Nondrinkers have been shown to demonstrate greater signs of depression than their carousing counterparts, and in addition to the potential heart health and circulation benefits of moderate drinking (especially red wine), it also increases sociability.
While it’s always important to drink responsibly, this is one study that warrants raising a glass.
OREGON SENATE PASSES FIX FOR HOME BREWERS, AMATEUR WINEMAKERS
February 22, 2011
SALEM — Trouble was brewing in Beervana last spring when a new interpretation of an old state law blocked home brewers and amateur winemakers in Oregon from participating in friendly tastings and contests.
Even the Oregon State Fair canceled its homemade beer and wine competition after the Oregon Liquor Control Commission received an advisory from the Department of Justice saying the law did not allow nonlicensed amateurs to share their carefully crafted stout or pinot anywhere except at home.
Brewers’ blogs foamed with anger. One even complained about the “Gestapo-like crackdown.” Several state lawmakers set to work to fix the problem.
Tuesday, the Oregon Senate unanimously endorsed Senate Bill 444, which would rewrite state law to allow homemade beer and wine to be made, transported and consumed. It would clear the way for contests to resume in time for summer and fall judging.
The bill was carried on the floor by Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, who has been brewing his own beer since 1987.
“I was shocked,” Prozanski said about last year’s legal ruling. “My brew partner was extremely concerned because we brew at my house. Under current law, he would be subject to prosecution for transporting his portion home.”
The bill still must get through the House. But it passed the Senate without debate.
Denny Conn, a member of both the American Homebrewers Association and the Cascade Brewers Society in Eugene, said he’s optimistic about its prospects.
“We have a big brewfest down here in May, the Sasquatch Brew Fest,” said Conn, a certified beer judge as well as a member of the national association’s governing committee. “At this point we’re going ahead.”
Small aside: Conn noted a guy doesn’t become a certified beer judge simply by sitting down and lifting some pints. He had to pass a three-hour test, answering 10 essay questions.
Oregon is home to an estimated 20,000 home brewers and amateur winemakers.
Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Association, said Oregon has one of the oldest laws in the nation, dating to the Prohibition era.
Even though it’s been a tough time for Oregon home brewers, he suggests it could be worse. Two states, Alabama and Mississippi, have laws that prohibit home brewing altogether.
Brett Begani, a member of the PDX Brewers board, called Tuesday’s Senate vote “a fantastic victory.”
“When I first started home brewing three years ago, I looked up the statute because so many laws are in flux for home brewers, and I felt it was saying I couldn’t move my beer,” Begani said. He then asked other brewers about it.
“Everybody said: ‘That may be the way the law is written, but we hold competitions, and somebody would have said something,’“ he said.
If Senate Bill 444 passes the House and is signed by the governor, Begani hopes the law will finally be clear.
“We have an emergency rider on the bill,” he added, “so the minute the governor signs it, it will be law, and we will be able to have a nice celebration.”