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Every time you take a sip of fine wine, you may very well be drinking the same wine that Roman emperors drank in ancient times. At least that’s what a new analysis of grape DNA reveals.
While wine has become more diverse in modern times, there are still several ancient varieties, particularly from France, that have a long lineage going back to a single vine from which cuttings have been taken and spread to other regions.
In order to discover the genetic secrets of the wine we drink today, Dr. Nathan Wales of the University of York and his team gathered grape seeds from nine ancient sites in France, 28 seeds in all, and compared them to modern grapes.
The results were surprising, and in some cases, alarming.
Sixteen of the grapes were within one or two generations of our modern grapes. One is a match to the rare Savagnin blanc in France, which has been around for 900 years.
Others were even as old as ancient Rome itself.
“When we imagined people 1,000 years ago drinking wine, the question was, how different was the stuff in that bottle?” Wales explained. “Now we’ve got the answer. It’s incredibly likely that someone 1,000 years ago was drinking something that’s pretty much genetically identical to what we drink today.”
Marble statue of Dionysos. The god Dionysos is the god of wine & divine intoxication. Early roman empire, 27 BC – 68 AD, Metropolitan Museum pic.twitter.com/zHo4J6MoBy
— Roman History (@romanhistory1) November 27, 2016
“From our sample of grape seeds we found 18 distinct genetic signatures, including one set of genetically identical seeds from two Roman sites separated by more than 600km, and dating back 2,000 years ago,” he continued. “These genetic links, which included a ‘sister’ relationship with varieties grown in the Alpine regions today, demonstrate winemakers’ proficiencies across history in managing their vineyards with modern techniques, such as asexual reproduction through taking plant cuttings.”
University of Copenhagen researcher Dr. Jazmín Ramos-Madrigal, a member of the team, described the makeup of the grapes.
“We suspect the majority of these archaeological seeds come from domesticated berries that were potentially used for winemaking based on their strong genetic links to wine grapevines,” Ramos-Madrigal said. “Berries from varieties used for wine are small, thick-skinned, full of seeds, and packed with sugar and other compounds such as acids, phenols, and aromas – great for making wine but not quite as good for eating straight from the vine. These ancient seeds did not have a strong genetic link to modern table grapes. Based on writings by the Roman author and naturalist, Pliny the Elder, and others, we know the Romans had advanced knowledge of winemaking and designated specific names to different grape varieties, but it has so far been impossible to link their Latin names to modern varieties. Now we have the opportunity to use genetics to know exactly what the Romans were growing in their vineyards.”
— A Life in Wine (@alifeinwine) September 22, 2017
However, it should be pointed out that the study did not seek to discover if there’s a difference in taste of the wines over the centuries.
A University of Colorado professor is brewing ancient beers such as those drank by the Vikings and other cultures from around the world, so we can experience what beer may have tasted like at the time compared to our modern beers.
However, since many of these grapes have very similar DNA and are used to make the same wines, it’s reasonable to say that the taste is relatively the same, depending on factors such as climate that have minor to major effects on grapes at any given time.
“It is rather unconventional to trace an uninterrupted genetic lineage for hundreds of years into the past,” Wales added. “Large databases of genetic data from modern crops and optimized palaeogenomic methods have vastly improved our ability to analyze the history of this and other important fruits.”
“For the wine industry today, these results could shed new light on the value of some grape varieties; 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,” he concluded.
Indeed, the DNA test results do have a message to share. Only it’s a warning to the wine industry.
Canadian researcher Zoë Migicovsky of Dalhousie University observed that while these grapes and the wines derived from them have remained largely the same, “everything around them has continued to change.”
"For many people, California’s scenic vineyards are a dream vacation destination. For Zoë Migicovsky, they are an ideal spot to learn more about grapevine genetics." @Dalnews @dalagriculture #PostdocAtDalhttps://t.co/QZUMXoobmf pic.twitter.com/ioCiNVII5W
— Dal Grad Studies (@DalGradStudies) August 14, 2018
Climate change is resulting in erratic temperatures that these grapes may not be able to tolerate for much longer, nor would they be able to survive the evolving pests and diseases. In our changing world, winemakers are going to have to change, which means breeding cross varieties and perhaps even abandoning the ancient ones for more resistant grapes that can better handle new stresses and threats.
That’s likely not what wine lovers want to hear. After all, as a wine drinker myself, I’d hate to think I have to give up one of my favorites for a different one. But the reality is that grapes are not immune to climate change and we will have to adapt if we still want to imbibe from time to time in the future.
It’s cool to learn that we may have been drinking the same wine as Julius Caesar, but just like the Roman Empire, their wine will also pass into history. So we’d best enjoy it while we still can.
More on what ancient wine may have tasted like due to additives like tree resins, herbs, and spices, from Seeker below:
Featured Image: Wikimedia