Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Banned Gouais blanc grape is the long-lost mother of Champagne

The Gouais blanc grape, disparaged for centuries as an inferior wine ingredient fit only for peasants, has been revealed as the mother of many of today’s finest and most sought-after varieties.

A genetic study has shown that Gouais blanc is the chief ancestor of modern grapes such as Chardonnay, the grape used to make Chablis and a component of Champagne, and Gamay noir, which is most famous as the mainstay of Beaujolais.

“This is a striking conclusion, as Gouais is generally considered a highly inferior variety, and its cultivation was banned for many years in parts of Europe,” said Christopher Howe, of the University of Cambridge, who led the study.

Both Gouais blanc and Pinot noir were grown extensively in Europe in the Middle Ages, particularly in northeastern France. Gouais blanc, however, was generally considered to make poor-quality wine, and several attempts were made to ban its cultivation between the late 16th and 18th centuries.

In 1732 an act of the Parlement of Besançon sought to outlaw the grape, which it described as rustic and inferior, though also as high-yielding. The Parlement of Metz took a similar initiative in the same year.

While attempts to ban the grape outright failed, it fell from popularity and largely disappeared from French vineyards in the 19th century. The original variety survives today in only a very few vineyards and reference collections.

John Haeger, of Stanford University in California, another author of the research, said: “Typically, varieties of this sort were grown on flat land by peasants. Good vineyards, on the other hand, growing better and lower-yielding varieties, were owned and farmed under the supervision of the Church or nobility.

“Many of the bans were designed either to favour aristocrats and monastic orders over peasants, or force more arable land into the production of cereals and legumes to eliminate food shortages.”

The latest research, which is published in the journal Biology Letters, has used genetic fingerprinting techniques similar to those used in forensic science to establish that Gouais blanc made a much more significant contribution to modern viticulture than had generally been thought.

While it was already known that several modern varieties owed their origins to cross-breeding of Gouais blanc and the more respectable Pinot noir, the findings have shown that Gouais was in many cases the senior partner.

When such crosses are made, the female grape strain that is used provides more DNA than the male strain to their offspring, and thus has more influence on their later characteristics.

The study led by Professor Howe has now shown that Gouais blanc was the maternal parent in crosses with Pinot noir that produced at least nine modern grape varieties.

As well as Chardonnay and Gamay, the lowly variety was the mother of Aligoté, Auxerrois, Bachet, Franc noir, Melon (used in Muscadet), Romorantin and Sacy. Pinot noir was the maternal parent of Aubin vert, Knipperlé and Roublot, with Gouais blanc the male partner.

Professor Howe said: “It is ironic that the despised grape Gouais blanc was not just a parent for several of the world’s best-known and most important varieties, such as Chardonnay and Gamay noir, it was the maternal parent, providing additional DNA and potentially determining important characteristics of the offspring.”


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