Turning weeds into wine

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Grapes are in effect a weed.

In Washington state some pre-prohibition vineyards that were abandoned still manage to survive without human intervention. Naturally these vines are not terribly productive, but they survive.

In some areas of Portugal they still allow vines to climb trees, wherever they will.

Over the years we have learned how to tame their desire to climb, we force them to grow in patterns that make them easy to manage.

Like any weed, they are very adaptable and can quickly change to meet their environment. This explains the thousands of grape varieties that have developed over time.

Even within historical records grapes have mutated and created new varieties much like apples will throw a new "sport". France alone has 3,600 varieties. Many of these varieties are found in other countries but with different names.

In the last 50 years much research has gone into determining what a grapes true name is.

In Germany, for example, Pinot Noir goes by the name of Blauburgunder which literally means "blue Burgundy".

Here in this country we called Durif "Petit Syrah", Negrette is called "Pinot St George", and Gamay we call "Gamay Beaujolais" referring to this grape's place of origin.

Many different names developed for grapes over the years as people would move them from one valley to another and use the grape's place of origin as its name. And once in their new environment the grape would begin to evolve subtle differences.

Pinot Noir (yes, the grape that is the elusive hero of the movie "Sideways") is a grape that readily changes its berry color. Thus we have Pinot Noir (red), Pinot Gris (pink grapes and called Pinot Grigio by Italian and some American wine makers), and Pinot Blanc (white).

Each of these grapes evolved from the same original plant yet they each make a very different wine.

Another way grapes change is by crossing two varieties. Thus Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.

One wonders how the original cross occurred and how the people who observed and collected it knew that it was a cross between those two grape varieties and named it accordingly.

After World War II, many universities had professors carefully covering vine flowers and introducing pollen from other grapes to create entirely new varieties.

This is a painstaking process and requires several years from the creation of the seed to actually getting grapes from a new variety and beginning winemaking trials.

Very few new varieties have evolved from this quixotic quest but two that have include Symphony from California and Gamanoir from Switzerland.

Modern technology now allows us to genetically modify grapevines. The Champagne company Moet & Chandon has an amazing research department.

They have already modified European grapevines by inserting disease resistant American grapevine genes into vines. They went so far as to plant a small experimental vineyard but public opinion in Europe is very much against GMO's and they were forced to tear out the vines.

I believe that this is the next green revolution that awaits us. In grapes in particular genetic modification could allow us to reduce fungicide applications significantly.

The grape world is a dynamic one. If one had time it would be fun to explore abandoned grapevines in Central Washington and see if some sort of mutation had occurred that would give us a unique grape in Washington.

A vineyard existed in Malaga south of Wenatchee in the late 1800's and I have been told that grapes grow wild in the area.

Who knows what viticultural treasure might be masquerading as a weed in Malaga?

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