Botanically Speaking

The vine or wine grape vine is from a family of vigorous climbing woody plants distributed throughout the world. The wine grape vine is botanically labeled as the genus Vitus with the specific name vinifera (wine bearing), which is the only native species of Europe and the Middle East.

The Genus Vitis includes some 50 different species including Vitis amurensis from Asia, the muscadine species Vitis munsoniana and the very important native North American species Vitis Labrusca. At the end of the 19th century European vineyards were being decimated by the tiny louse phylloxera, the louse feeds on the root structure of Vitis vinifera and slowly kills the vine. After a great deal of research it was found that by grafting the vinifera vines onto the phylloxera resistant rootstock of Vitis labrusca the grafted vines remained healthy and each variety maintained its own unique characteristics. Today, Vitis labrusca has largely been replaced by other North American phylloxera resistant species like berlandieri, riparia, and rupestris. Rootstocks are commercially available with an array of different properties, late budding for frost prone areas, resistance to drought, pests and adverse soil conditions with names like Dog Ridge, and 5C Teleki.

Of all the 50 species of grape producing vines only the vinifera varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, etc.) have the ability to accumulate enough sugars and elements of acidity to make a palatable wine. The only exception to this would be the native North American species Vitis aestivalis (relating to summer), which still has a cult following. This species, once the staple of American wine making was commercially available under the varietal name Norton, as early as 1830. It achieved great success in Vienna, 1873, at a worldwide competition where the variety was declared “best red wine of all nations” it was actually grown in France, on a very small scale, in the late 19th century. Another variety was released as early as 1850 known as Cynthiana and was marketed as a lighter drink for immediate enjoyment. A few vineyards still produce these varieties but have had little commercial success outside of the United States even though the varieties have none of the negative qualities of its foxy cousin Concord (which makes wonderful grape jelly and juice, if not good wine).

Many historians and botanists believe the ancestors to our present day vinifera varieties originated in the Caucausus mountain range, Anatolia, Lebanon and Egypt. Some possible candidates as ancestors for the present day varieties are thought to be Vitis vinifera pontica, Vitis vinifera occidentalis, and Vitis vinifera orientalis. Tracing the exact origins of modern varieties is extremely difficult and a matter of great debate due to the vines ability to adapt. It has flourished in an enormous range of climates and latitudes, is one of the most variable of all domesticated plants and has an usually large number of genes. These genes are remarkably prone to mutation, by taking a variety to a place with a different climate and soil, the stress tends to encourage mutations. The mutations produce differences like hardier or more vigorous branch growth, leaves of a different size and/or shape, even grapes of a different color.

The adaptability of vinifera, its hardiness, ease of cultivation and the intoxicating effects undoubtedly attracted ancient peoples to it. Wine unlike beer requires no recipe, the dusty coating on grapes is actually wild yeast, and if crushed grapes are left alone in container, a miraculous transformation occurs.

Over time ancient peoples eventually noticed subtle differences in certain plants, some bore more fruit, some ripened earlier and rarely a plant would produce both male and female flowers (hermaphrodite). While the hermaphrodites would only produce about half as many grapes as the females, they did not requiring a male for fertilization and the seedlings of these plants overwhelmingly produce plants with both male and female flowers. This eventually led to the cultivated vine becoming distinct from the wild one by being consistently hermaphroditic. The distinction has the two listed as sub-species, Vitis vinifera sylvestris (woodland) for the wild one and Vitis vinifera sativa (cultivated), resulting from the selection of specific vines for cultivation. However, I must note (for fear of e-mails), by strict botanical definition, sativa is a cultivated variety, or cultivar, not a sub species.