In a large-scale genetic analysis of grapevine varieties, scientists across 16 countries identified two separate domestication events that took place simultaneously ‘in Western Asia and the Caucasus’ around 11,000 years ago, says a new study in the Science journal.
Many ancient civilisations in Europe and Asia had wine-drinking traditions, and grapevines have also sunk their roots deep in Western culture since the invention of winemaking. Yet, surprisingly little is known about grapevines’ origins.
While the earliest archaeological evidence for viticulture comes from 8,000 years ago in the Caucasus, knowledge of early grapevine domestication has remained a puzzle – until now.
Researchers in the new study sequenced the genes of 2,448 different grape varieties from across Eurasia and North Africa. They used samples from both the domesticated V. vinifera, from which most modern grapes were cultivated, and its wild ancestor V. sylvestris.
By comparing their genetic differences and similarities, they could trace back the grapevines’ evolutionary tree and history of domestication.
From their analysis, all modern varieties likely descended from an ancient V. sylvestris ancestor living in much of Eurasia and North Africa throughout the past 400,000 years.
In the east, the species split into two varieties: one in the Caucasus and one in an area that may also broadly be described as the Near East. These were the first to be domesticated, at the advent of the Agricultural Revolution, earlier than previously believed.
From these domestication centres, the cultivated varieties had divergent courses.
‘The South Caucasus domestication had limited spread and very little further influence,’ said professor Robin Allaby, of the University of Warwick and a specialist in the evolution of plant domestication, in a ‘perspectives’ article about the study in the same journal.
‘But the Near Eastern domestication came to dominate’ much of early viticulture, Allaby said. He wasn’t involved in the study itself.
As humans migrated through sea, land, and mountain corridors, they carried this variety into much of Europe, as well as to North Africa and mainland Asia. These routes ‘match tantalisingly closely with the initial spread of the Neolithic [cultures] into Europe’, according to Allaby.
During this early transport, humans also cross-bred the domesticated V. vinifera grapes with their wild V. sylvestris relatives, making them more suitable for producing wine.
As skilled growers, and possibly drinkers, they knew precisely what they were looking for in grapes. This included ‘berry palatability’ and ‘muscat aromas’, according to the study.
Most current grapevines descended from just four ancient cultivars in Europe and one in the Caucasus, as a ‘higher level of cultural exchange characterises the last stage since the Bronze Age’, said the study’s authors.
Communities began to trade the ‘superior grapevine cultivars along trade routes’, sharing not only their seeds but also their skills and knowledge.
As those seeds and skills propagated throughout Europe, cultures became enamoured with them, inspiring myths and fables – origin stories and deities for wine that pervaded the ensuing millennia.
With modern genetic analyses to complement archaeological finds, it may soon be possible to further deconstruct this mysterious and fascinating history of winemaking.