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Researchers Uncover Ancient Grape DNA That Tells the Prolific History of Wine

Vin jaune, literally "yellow wine," is not your typical French white. The rare wine is made in the Jura region of eastern France. It matures under a veil of yeast in a barrel for at least six years, during which time it develops a golden color and an intense, nutty aroma that apparently pairs well with Comté cheese. It also attracts hardcore wine enthusiasts. A 244-year-old bottle of the yellow stuff sold at auction last year for $121,000.

Now vin jaune has a new distinction. Scientists discovered that people have historically enjoyed the grape variety so much that it's been cultivated for at least 900 years.

Researchers conducted DNA tests on 28 samples of grape seeds dug out of waterlogged wells, dumps and ditches at archaeological sites across France. The results, published today in the journal Nature Plants, show strong connections between modern wine grapes and those used as far back as the Roman period.

To propagate grapevines, farmers often use cuttings from a preferred plant to grow new, genetically identical vines. The practice means that, theoretically, the DNA of an ancient grape and a modern grape of the same variety should be the same. Though many wine varieties we know and love allegedly have ancient pedigrees, it's hard to know whether the pinot noir or syrah we drink today is really the same type of wine that filled the cups of French monks or Roman magistrates.

Nathan Wales, of the University of York, and colleagues study DNA from archaeological plant remains to learn more about ancient agricultural practices. The researchers decided to look more closely at ancient grapes so they could compare the genetic information to a growing body of reference data for different varieties of modern and wild grapes.

Wales and his colleagues were able to sequence the entire nuclear genome of 28 grape seeds. One seed, pulled from a medieval cesspit in the remains of a monastery in Orléans, central France, was a perfect match with the modern savagnin blanc grape.

Not to be confused with the better-known sauvignon blanc, savagnin blanc is a white wine produced today in eastern France and parts of Germany. The same grape is also used to make vin jaune. The seed found in Orléans dates to 1050 to 1200 AD, several hundred years before savagnin blanc is even mentioned in historic texts.

"What that means is that this variety has been around for at least 900 years," Wales says. "Genetically, it's identical. It has been maintained through cuttings. We didn't previously know how long different varieties were maintained."

The researchers also found archaeological samples dating to the Roman period that were very close to modern grape varieties.

Read entire article at Smithsonian