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DNA Proves Ancient Grapes Still Used Today

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DNA Proves Ancient Grapes Still Used Today

A new study into grape seed DNA reveals that today we drink wines almost identical as in Medieval and Roman times.

Using similar techniques that are used to trace human ancestry, a team of researchers from UK, Denmark, France, Spain, and Germany traced genetic connections between ancient grapes varieties from excavated seeds and modern grape varieties.

Grapevine plants are propagated by taking a cutting form mature plants and using that to grow another plant therefore passing on an exact genetic match. It was a well told tale that particular varieties like Pinot Noir are exactly the same as those used 2,000 years ago but until now there wasn’t the scientific proof to back it up.

Researchers were able to test and compare 28 archaeological seeds from French sites dating back to the Iron Age, Roman era, and medieval period. One seed, excavated from a medieval site in Orléans in central France was genetically identical to Savagnin Blanc, meaning that that grape variety can be traced back at least 900 years to one ancestral plant.

"From our sample of grape seeds we found 18 distinct genetic signatures, including one set of genetically identical seeds from two Roman sites separated by more than 600km, and dating back 2,000 years ago,” said Dr Nathan Wales, from the University of York.

Savagnin Blanc is different to Sauvignon Blanc and is today used in central France to make Vin Jaune and in central Europe where it is better known as Traminer. Not one of the best known grape varieties, usually most popular with aficionados, the fact that this one plant was cloned across centuries through wars and political and societal upheaval suggests that the properties of the grape were thought to be special.

As for the Roman seeds, researchers were unable to find an exact match with modern day grape varieties but they did find strong similarities with the Syrah-Mondeuse Blanche family. Syrah is one of the most widely used grapes today and the Mondeuse Blanche, is produced in Savoy, as well as the Pinot-Savagnin family.

The research can now lead oenologists to re-evaluate lesser known grape varieties that may have been popular in ancient times. Once upon a time, they were highly prised for their qualities so they may well be worth another look.

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