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Ancient WorldsAncient Worlds

This Wine Grape Has Remained Genetically Unchanged for 900 Years

With careful plant propagation techniques, winemakers managed to “freeze” savagnin blanc grapes in their ancestral state.

ByKatherine J. WuNOVA NextNOVA Next
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A village in Jura, France, built on a hill surrounded by vineyards growing savagnin blanc, used in the production of vin jaune, or yellow wine. Image Credit: Olivier Ortelpa, iStock

Talk about your vintage wines: A single sip of savagnin blanc (not to be confused with sauvignon blanc) is all it takes to transport you back some 900 years into the past.

According to new research published Monday in the journal Nature Plants, the fruity, acidic grapes that make up this white varietal, which hails from eastern France, have remained genetically unchanged for almost a millennium. The study, which compared DNA from ancient grape seeds to sequences from modern plants, underscores the undying dedication of the French winemakers who labored to preserve savagnin blanc in its ancestral state.

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“It’s pretty cool that when you lift a glass of savagnin blanc today, the genetic identity of the wine in your glass is identical to something that was being drunk so long ago,” Sean Myles, a plant biologist at Dalhousie University in Canada who was not involved in the current study, told Joshua Sokol at The New York Times.

The genetic findings suggest that viticulturists have been consciously cloning savagnin blanc grapes for centuries. In a process called clonal propagation, winemakers will carefully cut and graft or replant a vine, effectively freezing the plant in its original state. The practice affords far more consistency than scattering seeds, which tends to carry a higher risk that the plant will evolve and branch out into new varieties. Though historical accounts have hinted that these practices go back for at least 2,000 years, the new study reaffirms the critical role this technique has played in vineyards past and present.

The seeds in question were uncovered by a team of archaeologists led by Nathan Wales, a researcher at the University of York. In total, the researchers excavated 28 seeds from nine different sites around France, dating as far back as the Iron Age, around 500 BCE, and as recent as the early 13th century. Genetic analysis of their DNA revealed that the seeds were all from domestic vines, most of which bore similarities to modern varieties still used in wines today. The seeds’ genomes also segregated into six distinct groups that didn’t always cluster by geography, supporting the idea that identical grape cuttings had been spread by human hands.

But the star of the study was a solo seed fished out of a 900-year-old cesspit in a church complex in the city of Orléans. A scan of 10,000 points in the seed’s genome revealed that the vines it once sprouted from were a perfect match for modern-day savagnin blanc.

“Basically, it is an identical twin that has just been maintained forever,” Wales told Nicola Davis at The Guardian.

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Savagnin blanc, a variety of white wine grape with green-skinned berries. Image Credit: Arnaud 25, Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, savagnin blanc may be an obscure name. But its ancestry is surprisingly rich and complex—and centuries-old vines might even have given rise to more familiar varieties like pinot noir, riesling bleu, and more, Sarah Zhang reports for The Atlantic.

For those curious for a taste of these historic grapes, savagnin blanc vines are still grown in several European countries (sometimes under the name Traminer Weiss), and remain popular as a base for vin jaune (“yellow wine”) in the French region of Jura. The wine, Zhang reports, is intensely yellow in color and comes with a nutty kick.

But don’t expect modern savagnin blanc grapes to taste identical to what the French enjoyed around the turn of the first millennium: The flavor of wine is sensitive to a variety of factors that range from soil conditions to processing techniques. Recapturing that 900-year-old magic will take a lot more than a centuries-old seed.

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