VITIS VINIFERA – The evolution of wine

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Benjamin Franklin was undoubtedly thinking about man alone when he famously wrote that wine is proof that God loves us. His assumption that we are therefore special, however, needs to be challenged, or at least clarified, as there are dozens of mammals able to tolerate and actively seek alcohol in much the same way as we do. Drunken elks in Scandinavia, macaques drinking heavily at the end of the day, fruit bats with large amounts of alcohol in their blood able to navigate complex courses are all well-documented examples of alcohol tolerance. There is one species, however, that is easily the biggest boozer amongst mammals, drinking the equivalent of several bottles at a time without any ill effects – the pen-tailed treeshrew of Malaysia wins hands down when it comes to alcohol tolerance, proof that God may well love this treeshrew more than he does us!

At some point in human evolution, it would appear we lived in the forest canopy rarely venturing onto the forest floor; a dark and dangerous place full of hungry predators. Leaving a safe tree top haven replete with all life’s necessities would only have been undertaken for good reason and one can imagine that alcohol in fallen, fermenting fruit could have encouraged many of our tree dwelling ancestors to engage in risky behaviour. We still do. Fallen fruit would have provided us with seasonal supplies of low alcohol wines perhaps no more than one or two percent in strength, enough to get us hooked and send us on an evolutionary path to alcohol tolerance and an accelerated journey to increased intelligence and cunning – essential tools to survive the alien forest floor. It could be argued, therefore, that without wine, we may have been happily, but soberly, still living in trees.

pen-tailed treeshrew of Malaysia

If you believe in the Darwinian theory of evolution, fast-forward the clock several million years. If you are Creationist, start here – the point at which we are recognizably human, have sufficient intelligence to survive the forest floor and just invented our first receptacle; probably wood or clay. Up to this point, our wine drinking would have been consuming fermented fruit on the spot whilst simultaneously spitting out forest dirt and insects. Receptacles would have allowed us to collect large quantities of fruit and with spontaneous fermentation inevitable, wine making of a sort had arrived.

As time went by, larger receptacles would have been made to make the most of seasonal fruit and wine. These receptacles, too cumbersome for everyday use, would have been stored from one year to the next resulting in something quite extraordinary.

By reusing wine containers, humans would have unwittingly taken on the role of Darwinian natural selection and, sometime in our distant past a yeast, against all odds, survived fermentation whilst all around it perished in their own alcoholic excreta. This microscopic survivor would have lain dormant in the container until reawakened the following year by water and fruit sugars to start all over again! Over millennia, our little survivor and its progeny would have been thrown into annual survival contests, tolerating ever higher levels of alcohol eventually evolving into a distinct species. These yeasts never existed in the wild and would be found only in wine containers or around early human habitations where spillages occurred.

Saccharomyces cerevisiae the wine yeast par excellence, used for thousands of years, evolved with us, and many believe that it may well be the earliest example of domestication long before we subjugated animals. Thousands of strains of Saccharomyces can now be traced to different geographical locations leading some researches to believe that ancient human migration patterns could one day be unravelled from deep within Saccharomyces’s DNA.

Vitis vinifera, the European vine, or rather its wild ancestor Vitis Vinifera Sylvestris would have flourished widely around the Mediterranean and its berries, full of sugar, would have soon been considered the fruit par excellence for winemaking.

Once humans started farming, Sylvestris is domesticated and Vinifera evolves and takes over. It is still the only vine species used today.

Travelling forward in time, we pass tribal Europe, the Romans who spread the vine far and wide, the Visigoths and Germanic tribes each no doubt making a contribution to viticulture. As we speed by, we see the Church and monasteries raising winemaking beyond an art and into quasi-scientific principles. The monks start disseminating Burgundy vineyards into different quality levels and an early concept of terroir (the idea that wine quality depends on the land and climate whose potential can be equalled but never surpassed) enters the vigneron’s psyche for the first time.

Arriving at 19th century, we see wine-producing regions throughout Europe. Wine exports have become important contributors to the national wealth and prestige of many countries. All is well with the wine world until, in the 1860’s, disaster strikes. A disaster whose seeds had been sown when Columbus discovered America opening the way for the eventual settlement of California and Mexico by Spanish monasteries.

Monks thirsty for wine were soon cultivating local vines like Vitis Rupestris whose wines, disappointingly, were found to possess animal-like aromas and flavours.  The European vine Vinifera was soon imported but something unexpected happened. The European vine initially flourished but then succumbed to disease and died. The reason, not understood at the time, would eventually become painfully clear in the 19th century France.

Reports of an unknown vine disease in Southern Rhone were first reported in 1863. This mysterious disease began to take hold and kill vineyards all over France. Panic set in and the government of the day offered over 300,000 francs to anyone able to produce a cure for this blight.

The culprit, a small yellow insect clinging to the roots of dying vines, was eventually identified by Jules Emile-Planchon as Phylloxera but not before the French wine industry had been decimated.

How Phylloxera came to Europe is disputed but it is now accepted that it was imported by collectors of plants from the eastern seaboard of the United States, the home of dreaded insect.

Every cloud has a silver lining and Rioja, one of France’s closest neighbours, was an initial beneficiary when demand for its wines rocketed as supplies in France dwindled. Rioja used this period to consolidated its wine industry until Phylloxera reached its vineyards in 1899.

At the height of the blight, all manner of remedies was proposed in the hope of winning the cash prize. The less outrageous ones were tried; including flooding vineyards or trying to poison Phylloxera. None were successful. It was Leo Laliman, a winegrower, who first proposed grafting the European vine Vitis Vinifera onto resistant American rootstock. It worked. This became the lifesaver of the wine industry in Europe and beyond. Today, there are few ungrafted vines anywhere and Laliman claimed the prize but was turned down by the politicians of the time as grafting, they claimed, was a prevention not a cure.

The 20th century saw the rise of the New World as serious players in the global wine trade. Australia demystifies wines by labelling bottles with grape varieties allowing consumers to express preference without specialist knowledge. Californian wines unexpectedly beat France’s finest in a blind tasting in 1976 in Paris. The French judges, unused to Californian wines, rated Stag’s Leap 1973 ahead of France’s beloved grand cru Mouton Rothschild. This now famous or infamous tasting, depending if you are French or American, gives a massive boost of confidence to Californian producers still in evidence today.

Today wine is made everywhere. China is soon expected to have the largest area under vine. The US, Chile, Argentina and Australia are now mature players in the global wine trade – their influence expected to rise as they produce sought-after wines at prices to match France’s finest. Terroir, a concept derided previously in the New World, is increasingly adopted and the race is on to dethrone France as the world’s top producer of fine wines.

A longer version of this article, written by Andrew Licudi, was published by Jancis Robinson as one of the finalist articles in a world- wide wine writing competition.