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Ancient wine secrets revealed by new DNA tests

French winemakers have been using a grape identical to modern-day Jura favourite Savagnin for at least 900 years, and the Romans were growing vines related to Pinot Noir and Syrah, shows new research.

A 900-year-old, medieval grape seed found in Orléans, south of Paris, is genetically identical to Savagnin Blanc, famous today for its role in producing Jura’s ‘vin jaune’.

‘This means the variety has grown for at least 900 years as cuttings from just one ancestral plant,’ said a research team including the University of York and funded by Danish and French national research agencies.

Researchers used DNA testing to analyse 28 ancient grape seeds, spanning the Iron Age, Roman times and medieval periods.

While DNA sampling of wine grapes is not new, there remain several blanks in the family jig-saw of modern-day varieties. This is not least because cultivation and propagation was not always uniformly documented.

Savagnin Blanc is identical Traminer Weiss, which was better known in central Europe, but the earliest known mention dates to 1539, said the research team.

‘Our findings extend the presence of this variety in France by hundreds of years and also suggest that either Savagnin Blanc or its direct relatives have been cultivated in France since the first century CE [AD],’ they said, writing in the journal Nature Plants.

Did the Romans grow early versions of Pinot Noir and Syrah in France?

Analysis of the other 27 ancient grape seeds didn’t reveal any direct matches on a database of modern, commercial wine grapes, but some Roman-era seeds showed a striking resemblance to grapes that have been genetically linked to Pinot Noir and Syrah.

Roman-era seeds were closely related to the ‘Syrah-Mondeuse Blanche family’ and the ‘Pinot-Savagnin’ family, the researchers said.

Previous DNA study has shown that Syrah is a natural crossing of the Mondeuse Blanche and Dureza grape varieties.

Back in 2006, researchers discovered a probable ‘third-degree relationship’ between Syrah and Pinot, unlikely as that may sound given the different flavour profiles of the two grapes.

More research planned

The research team in the latest study said that they hope to discover more archaeological evidence that could send them further back in time and reveal more grape wine varieties.

‘For the wine industry today, these results could shed new light on the value of some grape varieties,’ said Dr Nathan Wales, of the University of York.

‘Even if we don’t see them in popular use in wines today, they were once highly valued by past wine lovers and so are perhaps worth a closer look.’

See the full study in Nature Plants, 5, 595–603 (2019)

See also: World’s oldest wine comes from Georgia, says study

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