DNA of ancient Roman and medieval grape seeds reveals unexpected links to modern grape varieties

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Gallo-Roman grape seeds © Laurent Bouby
Gallo-Roman grape seeds © Laurent Bouby
Which grape varieties were popular for making wine in ancient times’ Do they resemble those in use today? An international consortium which included INRA, the CNRS and the University of Montpellier1 has shed new light on viticulture in ancient Rome and the Middle Ages. Researchers sequenced the DNA of 28 grape seeds found on archaeological sites in France and compared their genomes to those of modern grape varieties. They found Savagnin Blanc, a grape variety popular in the Jura region, on a medieval archaeological site near Orléans. They also established genetic relationships between varieties like Pinot Noir and Syrah and Roman varieties. Their studies show that Roman winemakers propagated their vines by widely distributing cuttings across vast territories. Their findings are paving the way to a bona fide genealogy of grape varieties and shedding new light on the characteristics of ancient wine.

Ancient Roman naturalists such as Pliny the Elder described in detail the grape varieties cultivated in the first century BC. But it was impossible to establish genealogical links between ancient and modern grape varieties, or to trace the origin of varieties in use today. Until now, that is, thanks to studies carried out by an international research consortium. Researchers extracted and sequenced the DNA of 28 grape seeds from nine archaeological sites dating to the Iron Age (500 BC), ancient Rome, and the Middle Ages. Then they researched the genetic connections between ancient vines and several hundred modern varieties from INRA’s genetic resource collections.

Amphorae for storing wine from the Gallo-Roman site of Magalas, Hérault (INRAP excavations) © INRAP, Olivier Ginouvez At a site near Orléans dating back to 900 years ago, the researchers found a grape seed whose DNA is identical to that of the modern Savagnin Blanc variety. Winemakers therefore preserved it as is, through cuttings or grafting, over centuries. Savagnin Blanc, also known as Traminer, is used to make the well-known vin jaune, or ’yellow wine’, of the Jura region. It is also cultivated in central Europe.

The scientists established close genetic ties between grape seeds from ancient Rome found in the south of France and two of the most popular modern grape varieties: Syrah and Pinot Noir. Syrah, the hallmark of wines from the Rhone valley, is one of the most widespread varieties cultivated around the world. Pinot Noir is the prestigious variety used to make wine in Burgundy. The findings show that the history of these two varieties goes back over 2,000 years. DNA also allowed the scientists to establish direct links between ancient Roman varieties and Swiss varieties such as Humagne Blanc and Amigne. It is worth noting that these modern varieties now thrive a long way from the Mediterranean region, where their Roman ancestors were found.

The studies also shed light on winemaking techniques in use from Roman times. The researchers found that grape seeds found on two contemporaneous Roman sites located 600 kilometres apart are of the same variety. This proves that 2,000 years ago, winemakers knew how to maintain and propagate their varieties through cuttings and grafting, exactly as winemakers do today.

By revealing the ancient origins of grape varieties, these findings give new meaning to the idea of terroir, referring to locally-grown produce with specific inherent qualities. This may motivate winemakers to reconsider varieties that are little used today, but whose ancestors were in vogue in the days of Bacchus. 1The studies were funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research, the Danish National Research Foundation, and by France’s National Research Agency

(33 4 99 61 30 96) Joint Research Unit for the Genetic Improvement and Adaptation of Mediterranean and Tropical Plants (INRA, Cirad, Montpellier SupAgro)

Palaeogenomic insights into the origins of French grapevine diversity. Jazmín Ramos-Madrigal, Anne Kathrine Wiborg Runge, Laurent Bouby, Thierry Lacombe, José Alfredo Samaniego Castruita, Anne-Françoise Adam-Blondon, Isabel Figueiral, Charlotte Hallavant, José M. Martínez-Zapater, Caroline Schaal, Reinhard Töpfer, Bent Petersen, Thomas Sicheritz-Pontén, Patrice This, Roberto Bacilieri, M. Thomas P. Gilbert and Nathan Wales. Nature Plants.10 June 2019. DOI: 10.1038/s41477-019-0437-5 https://www.nature.com/articl­es/s41477-­019-0437-5