The Frozen Genetics of International Wine Cultivars

December 2017
by Tim Martinson

If you are growing one of the 20 or so most popular international wine grape varieties, you are dealing with a very narrow slice of the genetic heritage of the genus Vitis. Chances are that the variety in your vineyard originated somewhere in the 15th or 16th century in the middle of Europe. Most certainly, the genetic makeup of your vines predates the introduction of a suite of pests from North America, such as grape phylloxera, powdery mildew, downy mildew and black rot. Classic wine grape cultivars and their names have spread throughout the globe, but their genetics are frozen in the Middle Ages.

This is in stark contrast to other horticultural and agronomic crops. What if fruit breeding had stopped in the 1600s? Peaches would be the size of cherries, watermelons would have six small pockets of red flesh divided by fleshy white tissue, and bananas would have large seeds. Are traditional wine grape varieties—wonderful as they are—impervious to improvement?

Many of the name-brand cultivars are closely related to each other. A decade ago, a USDA unit based at Cornell University produced a custom-made genetic array (dubbed the “SNP chip”) that provided a way to detect more than 5,000 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and allowed a 100-fold more detailed map of the grape genome than was previously possible.

They tested 583 unique grape cultivars from germplasm collections and found that roughly 75% of them were closely related (siblings or parent-offspring) to at least one other cultivar (Myles et al. 2011). More than half (58%) were part of a single genetic network through sibling/parent relationships.

It’s now common knowledge that Cabernet Sauvignon was the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc (Bowers & Meredith, 1997). But the map from Myles et al. (2011) shows that many of the most well-known cultivars are just one or two steps distant from four cultivars: Riesling, Traminer, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc. If not siblings or progeny, many are at least first or second cousins.

The genetics are frozen, but the rest of the grapevine ecosystem has not stood still. Phylloxera caused Europeans to graft their classic wine grapes onto resistant American rootstocks. Powdery mildew prompted the introduction of sulfur and Bordeaux mixture. And currently, downy mildew, which grows explosively and can defoliate a vineyard in a week under the right conditions, is the key pathogen driving spray programs in Europe and eastern North America.

There are newer challenges not encountered by V. vinifera during the species’ evolution, such as Pierce’s disease and grapevine red blotch disease. These are challenges that the current varieties have not been selected to resist.

The end result of these frozen genetics is that we need to intervene—often, and in a timely manner—to bring in a disease-free, high-quality crop. A large part of vineyard management is devoted to applying “Band-Aids” to compensate for notable weaknesses in our current wine varieties.

For Chardonnay growers in the humid East, this amounts to the need to apply eight to 15 carefully timed fungicide sprays and to practice careful canopy management in order to combat the five major pathogens that Chardonnay is not genetically equipped to resist.

While we have been successful in developing and using these tools, it’s not at all clear that continued success is sustainable. Public perception of health risks of sprays (justified or not) grows more contentious and will place new limits on what growers are able to do.

Of equal concern, disease organisms adapt quickly to new chemistry (except for sulfur, which is still effective after more than 100 years). But many of the most recent ones have been rendered ineffective by resistance within a few years of their introduction. There’s no guarantee that new products will come along at the right time to replace them.

To add to this list, climate change will radically reshape our agriculture in the next century. Will our current varieties be able to cope? Will changes in management offset changes in climate? Or will we need new varieties?

Genetic alternatives
Many of the weaknesses of current varieties could be addressed by broadening the narrow genetic base of our current cultivars. V. vinifera germplasm is more diverse than what is represented in the classic cultivars. But even more unexploited genetics exist in North America and China. There are about 30 species of Vitis grapevines in North America, and those vines evolved alongside phylloxera, powdery mildew and other diseases that originated in North America.

Geneticists and breeders have, to date, identified multiple sources of resistance to powdery mildew, downy mildew and phomopsis. Several interspecific hybrids grown widely in the east are resistant to downy mildew. In the past decade, Dr. Andrew Walker’s work has incorporated resistance to Pierce’s disease into three varieties with a 98% V. vinifera background.

Beyond disease resistance, genetic markers have been identified that help predict many other traits including cluster architecture, flavor, seedlessness, véraison timing, berry size and more.

In short, getting beyond the frozen genetics of classic varieties may help solve some thorny production issues and, at the same time, make the worldwide industry more environmentally friendly and sustainable.

Varietal names are an obstacle
The key obstacle that seems insurmountable is the marketing dominance of varietal wines. Even if breeders can combine disease resistance with the wine attributes of Cabernet Sauvignon, wineries may not be able to market or sell it under that name. In other words, will producers be able to command the same premium price for a wine called “Napa Red” as for Cabernet Sauvignon?

Currently, the answer is no. Many in the industry would claim that it’s impossible to improve upon or produce varieties that are the equal of the classic wine varieties, much less market and sell wines made from them. But that could change rapidly in the future, if environmental concerns or climate change or emergence of a new pest make continued production of classic wine varieties untenable.

For the future health and sustainability of the industry, I believe it’s neces sary to get beyond the frozen genetics of the wine world and embrace the promise of genetic improvement. The biological world is subject to evolution. Pathogens evolve rapidly. The climate will change. To address these challenges, the narrow genetic base of our current cultivars needs to be broadened.

Another solution to this complex problem may be provided by the VitisGen project, which is a collaborative effort to develop genetic markers and tools that advance grape-breeding efforts. This is the first of a series of columns where we will explore how an understanding of genetics can enhance breeding efforts and inform vineyard and winery management decisions.

Tim Martinson, a senior extension associate in the Cornell University School of Integrative Plant Science, works with regional extension educators and industry groups to provide growers and wineries with educational programs, workshops, newsletters and applied on-farm research that supports profitable production of grapes, grape products and wine.


Bowers, J. E. and C. Meredith (1997). The parentage of a classic wine grape, Cabernet Sauvignon. Nature Genetics 16, 84 - 87 (1997) doi:10.1038/ng0597-84.

Myles, S, A. Boyko, C. Owens, P Brown, F. Grassi, M. Aradhya, B. Prins, A. Reynolds, J. Chia, D. Ware, C. Bustamante, and E. Buckler. 2011. Genetic structure and domestication history of the grape. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 108 (9), 3530-3535.

Posted on 12.08.2017 - 09:41:52 PST
Hello Tim, I learned something from your column about the USDA work at Cornell to describe relationships among some important cultivars.
I agree totally with your comment...The key obstacle that seems insurmountable is the marketing dominance of varietal wines. The sooner that wine marketers and grape geneticists, and the relevant authorities, get together to address this issue the long overdue introduction of bred-for-purpose varieties will be inhibited.Varietal labelling would be less restrictive if we convinced consumers there were some 100 names, and more coming, rather than the ten or so commonly thrown at them. In fact that is rather insulting behavior by wine marketers towards consumers, when you think of it.
Keep up the good work, Richard Smart

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