The Quest for Wine's Origins

Through DNA profiling and archaeology, researchers have found what they believe is the cradle of wine grapegrowing
Dec 12, 2012

What was the first wine appellation? According to new research from leading scientists, mankind's long history of cultivating grapes for wine began in southeast Anatolia, located in modern-day Turkey. Their research has also shown that our favorite wine grapes are more closely related to each other than previously thought.

When Dr. José Vouillamoz, a Swiss botanist and grape geneticist, embarked nearly a decade ago on research with biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern, he set out to find, genetically speaking, where wild and cultivated Vitis vinifera vines showed the closest relationship. Researchers have long believed that wherever wild grapevines show the most diversity and share the most similarities with cultivated vinifera, the European species of vines most top wine grape varieties belong to, that would be where early man first started growing vines specifically for wine.

Southeast Anatolia has been on the list of likely birthplaces of viticulture, along with nearby areas in Transcaucasia—Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Southeast Anatolia is part of the Fertile Crescent, where Stone Age farmers are believed to have first domesticated wild grains. Those crops provided a steady food supply, and allowed our nomadic ancestors to settle down, giving rise to villages, society and civilization.

After collecting hundreds of grape variety samples, Vouillamoz compared minute portions of DNA called microsatellites—repeating sequences that are helpful for comparing genomes. He was able to use them to create DNA profiles of the grape varieties. The densest concentration of similarities between wild and cultivated Vitis vinifera appeared in southeast Anatolia.

"We propose the hypothesis that it is most likely the first place of grape vine domestication," Vouillamoz told Wine Spectator, after he and McGovern presented their findings at the EWBC wine conference held Nov. 9–11 in Izmir, Turkey. (They do caution that they can't conclusively rule out Transcaucasia and Iran.)

The evidence suggests grapevines were abundant in the region back then. Gathered wild grapes not immediately eaten might have been stored in a basket, inevitably a few would have been crushed, with wild yeast quickly turning the juice into something more interesting. “Serendipitous inebriation,” said Vouillamoz. “If this man or woman had tasted this juice, observing the euphoric effect, he had one single idea: Start again." Why would man start planting vines rather than continue to gather wild grapes, as he had done for centuries? Wild grapes would not have been easy pickings—the vines climbed up trees, making berries difficult and dangerous to reach.

McGovern, author of Ancient Wine and Uncorking the Past, argued persuasively that we are wired to enjoy wine, and that “the big quest of humans has been to prevent wine going to vinegar.” Using intensive, precise methods to identify ancient organic compounds left by wine, he’s testing very early Anatolian clay vessels clearly intended for drinking. “The samples from eastern Turkey are really exciting,” said McGovern.

By combining their two fields of research, Vouillamoz said that grapes were first domesticated between 6,000 and 8,000 BC, possibly earlier.

Vouillamoz became interested in grape DNA while working on his post-doctoral thesis at the University of California at Davis and recently co-authored a book called Wine Grapes, which includes the family trees of 1,368 varieties, based on his DNA research.

There are some surprising connections in his findings. For instance, Syrah is the great-grandchild of Pinot. "This was ground breaking news, because everyone would think that Pinot and Syrah would have completely different origins. I say, no! They belong to the same family tree," said Vouillamoz.

Another surprise: The grape Gouais Blanc, reviled by some for producing vulgar wines, has more than 80 outstanding offspring, including Gamay, Chardonnay, Riesling and Furmint. “I call him the Casanova of grapes," said Vouillamoz.

As he charted grape genealogies, patterns emerged that made him rethink theories about today’s varieties and how they arrived in Europe. “There was this idea that most of the oldest and most important grape varieties in Western Europe were introduced independently from somewhere in the Middle East, Near East or Egypt, Turkey or Greece, at different times and in different places," said Vouillamoz. "I believe these introductions were not as numerous as we think. A small number of grape varieties were the founder grapes varieties of what we cultivate today.”

These prolific founders either originated in or descend directly from the wine grapes cultivated in southeast Anatolia, Vouillamoz and McGovern believe, which in turn descended from the wild grape vines in the same area.

For European wine grapes, 13 "founder grapes," key ancestors of our favorite varieties, have been isolated so far, along with the countries researchers believe they first thrived in: in France, they include Pinot Noir (Pinot Blanc and Gris are mutations), Gouais Blanc, Savagnin, Cabernet Franc and Mondeuse Noire; in Italy, Garganega, Nebbiolo, Teroldego, Luglienga; in Italy or Greece, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains; in Spain, Cayetana Blanca; in Switzerland or Austria, Rèze; and in Croatia, Tribidrag.

Vouillamoz said there is a lot more to discover in the relationships and lineage of these wine grapes. He pointed to Savagnin and Pinot, old varieties dating back one or two thousand years, both responsible for a lot of the crossings that gave birth to what we cultivate today. “We know that one is the parent of the other, but we don’t know in which direction, which is fascinating," he said. "Pinot is either the child or father of Savagnin. That’s amazing.”

As for where the first grape growers started their work, research continues in Georgia, and Iran could hold some secrets. A wine jar found in northwest Iran dates from 5400 B.C. Vouillamoz and McGovern, who are actively seeking research funding, have not been able to collect vine samples yet.

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