When toasting during Christmas holidays, perhaps with a glass of Italian sparkling prosecco, think about it: viticulture in Europe occupies 3% of the cultivated area, but it accounts for 65% of all fungicides employed in agriculture. The adoption of new wine grape varieties resistant to powdery and downy mildew could significantly cut chemical use. If fairly regulated, advanced biotech tools such as CRISPR could help sustainability without losing anything of the genetic identity of iconic varieties.
CRISPR wine is yet to come, but oenogenomics and smart breeding techniques have already yielded the first conventional fruits at the University of Udine, with ten varieties registered in the Italian National Catalog in 2015. They are called Fleurtai, Soreli, Sauvignon Kretos, Sauvignon Nepis, Sauvignon Rytos, Merlot Khorus, Merlot Kanthus, Cabernet Eidos, Cabernet Volos, Julius.
Production is still in the pre-commercial stage for most of them, but three varieties have been commercially harvested for the first time in 2018. “Four more, obtained from Pinot, will be registered soon,” announced plant geneticist Michele Morgante at the wine tasting event organized by the Italian association of biotech industries on the 5th of December in Milan. I was one of the lucky ones who had the chance of listening and sipping as well.
Powdery and downy mildew diseases came from America to Europe in the nineteenth century and are still a serious problem for winemakers. If breeders have taken so long to develop resistant varieties is because grapevine genetics is complex, the wine industry is cautious, and EU regulations don’t help.
The European Union legislation allows production of controlled denomination of origin (DOC) wines exclusively from Vitis vinifera, but the new resistant vines borrow few genes from wild varieties. Germany and Austria have solved the problem by declaring that vines in which at least 90% of the DNA comes from V. vinifera belong to this species, but Italy asks for 100%.
In recent years, however, the massive use of pesticides has caused tensions with people living close to the vineyards, the market for eco-friendly products is growing, and agricultural pollution standards are increasingly stringent. Not to mention the fact that we are in the age of climate change. If we want wines to stay as they are, vines will have to change.