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Wine Wednesdays With William: A Vine Breeders’ Tale

'saratoga living' wine expert William Roach on the expansive history of breeding grapevines.

Grapevines
(Chris Fithall/Flickr)

Archaeologists agree that the birthplace of the Eurasian grapevine is in Iran and the Levant, where the greatest genetic diversity is found, and where a wine culture became established between 10,000 and 5,000 BC. Residues in six pottery jars of that period, found in a household in the Neolithic village of Hajji Firuz, contain tartaric acid, found only in large amounts in the Middle East in grapes. The jars were closely stoppered and sealed with an antioxidant tree resin, which suggests that they had wine inside them. The presence of the equivalent of 72 bottles in one house further suggests the vine had been domesticated.

Six percent of the wild vine population is hermaphroditic and not dependent on insects or a favorable breeze for pollination, with the result that it produces much more fruit. Our Neolithic ancestors noted this and cloned the hermaphroditic plants by burying a cane from the vine in the soil with the tip pointing upwards and letting it develop roots of its own. No evidence exists that any other grape species was domesticated by ancient humans. Today, the Eurasian grapevine produces for 99 percent of the world’s wine.

As viticulture and winemaking moved west into Europe, new vine varieties sprang from natural crossings between vine varieties, and between vine varieties and wild vines. Many European wine regions, as a result, have their own indigenous grape varieties.

In the 19th century, breeding new vine varieties became a human activity with the express intent to breed plants with favorable growing characteristics and good flavor. For many years that proved elusive but not any longer. In New York and Canada, the focus has been to breed varieties that have cold and disease tolerance and new promising varieties are coming from the breeding programs at Cornell University and the University of Minnesota. The latter released La Crescent in 2002 and Marquette in 2006: both are hybrids grapes from different species of grapevine with good flavor and excellent cold hardiness. You can find wines made from them at Fossil Stone Vineyards, just outside Saratoga Springs, in Greenfield, NY.

Wine Challenge No.9:
This weekend would be a great time to visit one of the wineries that make up the Upper Hudson Valley Wine Trail. In addition, this Saturday afternoon, Michael Spiak, the winemaker at Fossil Stone Vineyards, will be in the Wine Room at Putnam Market on Broadway. Come by, taste his wines and question the winemaker.

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William Roach

William was born in London, England, where he wrote and produced TV programs. He's married to Catharine Hamilton who, with her sister, owns Putnam Market on Broadway. William runs The Wine Room at Putnam Market where he teaches wine classes for The Wine & Spirits Education Trust.

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