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Keeping it in the family


In a recent study, geneticists and viticulturists researched and compared the DNA of all the grapes in the American seed bank, where plantings of all grape varietals are stored. The result was very interesting: About half of all the grapes belongs to the same family. Syrah and Viognier are brother and sister, Cabernet Saivignon is a grandchild of Merlot. And the patriarch of most American-grown grapes is Traminer.

Considering that each cultivar, such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Franc, is the equivalent of one specimen, this, in human terms, would mean a United States census tallying only 1,000 people, half of them closely related and only a dozen or so particularly famous.

As in old royal families, it appears domesticated grapes have kept their good names by avoiding much breeding outside the family. And as in old royal families, this could spell poor health for our princeliest varieties. A new disease preying on vinifera could cause significant damage, even disaster.This is because pathogens can evolve, but cultivars can't. The result is an inordinate number of pesticides and fungicides used on vineyards. Researchers are now hoping that consumers will develop palates for lesser-known varietals, as cultivars are 'sitting ducks' for pathogens.


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