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Messing with grape growing

I recently wondered about grapes and our ability to modify them while anticipating apples for the first time from my apple tree. The apple tree has been grafted with 4 kinds of apples on this one tree. Rather than having 4 apple trees to care for, I have one. Love it!

Making wine even better has always been a desire of wine grape growers. Great wine always starts with great grapes. So propagating a better grape sometimes happens in a lab as well as the field.

Grafting, crossing, hybridizing, and cloning grapes are the primary techniques used. These are all simply tools of the grape grower to make a better wine grape.

Grafting is the act of joining two plants together and has been around a very long time, since the fourth millennium B.C. This manipulation allows for the growing of new varietals faster. Typically, an old mature rootstock is used, and a newer varietal of grape is grated to the older rootstock. This provides grape producing vines around 2 years faster than just planting the vine.

Crosses and hybrids are basically the same thing, but not interchangeable terms. A cross is when two grapes of the same species, Vitis Vinifera, are cross bred yielding a new variety. A natural occurring cross is Cabernet Sauvignon, a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. A hybrid is the same thing except the Vitis vinifera species of grapes are crossed with North American species, Vitis labrusca or Vitis riparia grapes. Crossed grapes are grown world-wide, yet hybrids have been prohibited in Europe for decades. Both serve the purpose of making a better grape, one more resistant to disease, better flavor, better yield and even darker in color.

Cloning grapes also serves a basic purpose of making better grapes by exactly duplicating a vine. Most plants reproduce through a combination of genetic material from two parents, carried from plant to plant by wind, birds or bees. This yields a new grape vine with the characteristic of the two parents. This is natures way but if you are a wine grape grower and have produced a grape that makes a highly sought-after wine, the best way to preserve the identical characteristics of the grape is through cloning. A piece of the ‘mother vine” is cut off and either directly planted or is grafted onto a root stock. Theoretically, with only one parent, the genetic content of the new vine is identical to the parent. They say theoretically because grape vines are highly adaptable and react to the environment and so mutations can easily happen.

A few well-known grape crosses propagated by humans are Pinotage with parents Pinot Noir and Cinsault, Marselan, parents Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache and Petite Sirah, parents Syrah and Peloursin. Grape Hybrids are a bit less known but considered well worth trying: Baco Noir parents Folle Blanche and an unknown red species of Vitis riparia and Vidal Blanc, parents Ugni Blanc and Rayon d’Or. There are thousand of clones of the three most planted varieties Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon and thousands of lesser-known grapes also.

The truth is several well-loved varieties are really a love child of obscure grapes. In the end I don’t really care who the parents are of my favorite wine are, I love the wine for the characteristics of that wine. But it is fun to know a bit more about my favorite wine and how growers are using old and new methods for creating better grapes all the time.


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