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Charles Darwin on wine

The father of evolution was born 200 years ago, but Charles Darwin can still teach modern viticulturists a thing or two, says Dr Richard Smart

What is Charles Darwin’s contribution to wine, and why does he deserve a toast? This year marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, as well as 150 years since the publication of his thesis, On the Origin of Species. Darwin was an extraordinary scientist who wrote books on a huge range of subjects, including the formation of coral reefs, fertilisation of orchids, climbing plants, the expression of emotions in man and animals, worms and animal intelligence.

Much has been made of the life and achievements of this great English biologist, but few fully appreciate his contribution to wine. Darwin’s associations with wine were severalfold. The first was circumstantial, as Darwin was one of the first Europeans to taste New Zealand wine. This was on the voyage of HMS Beagle in December 1835, during a stopover in the beautiful Bay of Islands in New Zealand’s north.

Missionaries had been tending vines in New Zealand since 1819, the vines having been brought over from the colony of New South Wales in Australia. On 23 December 1835, Darwin and HMS Beagle’s Captain Robert Fitzroy, visited the missionary settlement at

Waimate. Darwin’s diary records a rural English scene in the wilderness of New Zealand: ‘There were large gardens, with every fruit and vegetable which England produces and many belonging to a warmer clime.

I may instance asparagus, kidney beans, cucumbers, rhubarb, apples and pears, figs, peaches, apricots, grapes, olives, gooseberries, currants, hops, gorse for fences, and English oaks!’ New Zealand farmers today may be happy that vines were introduced, but maybe less so gorse, which is now a major weed in the country.

Darwin and Fitzroy were also guests of James Busby in New Zealand. This Scottish vine

and wine enthusiast had a political career following his introduction, in 1833, of many European vine varieties to Australia, which earned him the title of ‘father of Australian

viticulture’. He later took up his British Resident role at a time when England was not searching for more colonies.

But at Busby’s insistence, and through fear of French colonisation, Queen Victoria agreed to a treaty with the native chiefs of New Zealand which was consummated in the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840.

Ahead of his time

As part of his study of climbing plants, Darwin had a particular fascination with grapevines. His laboratory was a glasshouse, which still may be seen at his residence, Down House in Kent. Beside this glasshouse grows a vine today, perhaps propagated from that which he studied.

Darwin was particularly intrigued by the fact that grapevines produce either tendrils

(for climbing) or bunches of grapes (for reproduction) opposite each leaf – a reminder that grapevines evolved in a forest habitat 60 million years ago. The vine could adapt to a shaded environment and climb to sunlight using tendrils, or, when at the top of the forest, produce fruit.

In The Movement and Habits of Climbing Plants (1865), Darwin writes: ‘It is, also, an interesting fact that intermediate states between organs fitted for widely different functions, may be observed on the same individual plant of… the common vine; and these cases illustrate in a striking manner the principle of the gradual evolution of species.’ So, according to Darwin, the vine is a perfect example of evolutionary principles – fair praise indeed from the father of evolution.

Sadly, Darwin’s studies were overlooked by the viticultural science community, and I have never seen them cited in viticultural scientific literature. Recently, I presented this to an international congress at the renowned school of viticultural learning, University of California, Davis, and the audience was amazed to hear of Darwin’s research.

Yet the principles about which Darwin became so excited are well known to today’s viticulturists. Indeed, this understanding is at the very heart of ukthe modern science of canopy management, by which means grape growers the world over manage their vineyards to expose fruit to sunlight, and so improve wine quality. And vine pruners the world over curse grapevine tendrils for the way in which they bind onto wires and canes, and so slow the job of winter pruning and cane removal from the trellis wires.

Darwin’s third contribution to the modern world of wine is also little recognised, probably because it was also indirect. However, it was probably the greatest contribution. From the 1860s onwards, the vineyards of France planted to the European wine grape Vitis vinifera were increasingly challenged by the root louse phylloxera. This little yellow insect killed countless thousands of hectares of vineyard. Scientists at the time were hard pressed to find the cause of this devastation, and, once discovered, then to control the pest. The answer came from Darwin’s principles of evolution.

Given that the pest had been imported from America, where native vines grew, the obvious solution was to graft the sensitive European vines to rootstocks derived from American species. This approach, based on Darwin’s theories of adaptation, was proposed by French scientists Planchon and Millardet of Montpellier, and Riley and Munson in America, who are recognised as helping save Europe from phylloxera. The principle of grafting on to phylloxera-resistant rootstocks is still used today, and is one of the best examples of biological control known to agriculture.

So wine lovers today can raise a glass in toast to Darwin’s birthday, and his brilliant mind. And, if you are of a historical bent, that wine should, perhaps, be from New Zealand.

Written by Dr Richard Smart

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