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Sequencing Flavour

by Zoe Patterson Ross

A couple of years ago, a team of French and Italian researchers identified the sequence of DNA that creates that most lovely of grapes, the Pinot Noir. Being the first fleshy fruit crop to be sequenced, and only the fourth flowering plant, this was pretty big news, both at Nature and the BBC.

While the sequencing occurred several years ago, back in 2007, try as I might I was unable to find out if full analysis of the sequence had yet been completed. This does not mean it hasn’t happened yet, and rather might reflect more on my search-skills, so if anyone knows of a published analysis, then let me know.

One of the big roadblocks in studying genomes these days is not the sequencing but the actual analysis that needs to be performed afterwards. This is a problem not only with grapes, but with any kind of work which generates a lot of data, and with over 30,000 genes identified in Pinot Noir, it would be no wonder if a lot of time had to be spent working out what they all did.

Such an analysis would be incredibly interesting not only for the pure, unadulterated joy of learning, but for informing the breeding of new strains with improved flavours (a practice that has been going on for centuries, otherwise known as ‘viticulture’, though in this case there would be a little more genetic information floating around to inform breeding decisions), as well as for developing better pest resistance within grape strains – removing the need to be spraying all those pesky CFC-filled pesticides around our countrysides. Sadly, grapes, due to their inbreeding and fragility, are among the most sprayed of all crops, with over 12 applications of pesticide generally needed a season.

I hope that with increasing numbers of winemakers turning to organic methods and trying to avoid the excessive use of pesticides, winemakers will be open to the idea of modifying grape genomes in order to make pest resistance inherent in the grape, rather then bathing the grapes in dangerous, environmentally unfriendly chemicals.

Of course, modifying the genes doesn’t guarantee the quality. The flavours produced in grapes are incredibly reliant on their environment – the soil, the sunshine, the terroir. Nurture plays such a massive part in the production of good wine, so just having a grape with great genes simply won’t do the trick.

Here’s to the future of wine!

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