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Researchers Uncover Noble Grape's Lowly Parent

Daniel Sogg
Posted: September 7, 1999

Genetic testing has proven that Chardonnay, America's most popular white wine and the source of the great white Burgundies, has decidedly unfashionable origins. Researchers at the University of California at Davis have used the DNA techniques also employed by crime labs to identify Chardonnay as the offspring of the noble Pinot family and Gouais Blanc, a variety so obscure that cuttings could only be obtained from the archives of an agricultural research center in France.

Dr. Carole Meredith, a professor in the department of viticulture and enology, led the team of researchers who made the discovery, which was published in the Sept. 3 issue of Science. "This one was a huge surprise," said Meredith, whose research group traced Cabernet Sauvignon two years ago to a union of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. "None of us had even heard of Gouais. Our French colleagues were skeptical at first, but the DNA evidence is conclusive."

The evidence does not specify which Pinot was Chardonnay's progenitor. Current DNA technology cannot differentiate between Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. Despite the dramatic differences in the wines they produce, the grapes are mutations of the same variety and -- for testing purposes -- are genetically identical. Pinot Noir seems the most likely candidate, according to Meredith, because it has always been the most common in France.

Little is known about Gouais Blanc. The researchers had to obtain their samples for study from the National Institute of Agronomic Research in France, where the grape is no longer even grown. Meredith believes that the Romans brought Gouais to France from eastern Europe about 2,000 years ago. Although widely planted, it was limited to inferior sites and so scorned that authorities tried to ban its cultivation in both the 16th and 18th centuries.

Who knew they were dealing with such a fruitful grape? Meredith and her colleague Dr. John Bowers, now at the Plant Genome Mapping Laboratory at the University of Georgia in Athens, determined that Gouais and Pinot are the parents of 15 other varieties, including Gamay, the source of Beaujolais, and Melon, which produces the Loire Valley's Muscadet.

Bowers' and Meredith's work might well turn out to be more than a historical footnote. Grape breeders are now experimenting with the Gouais-Pinot union in research vineyards, so today's revelation might lead to tomorrow's sensation.

To learn about Meredith's past research:

  • July 31, 1997
    Cabernet Sauvignon's Roots Run Both Red and White

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