DNA testing shows 900-year-old France’s grape varieties

A photo taken on August 28, 2017 shows grapes at a vineyard in Canakkale. (AFP)
Updated 11 June 2019

DNA testing shows 900-year-old France’s grape varieties

  • Savignan is the mother variety for more than two dozen white grapes, including gruner veltliner, chenin, riesling and petit manseng

PARIS: Grape varieties brought to France by the Romans are identical to those grown for wine in some of the most famous appellations today, a new analysis of ancient vine DNA showed Monday.
Researchers unearthed evidence that one grape — from which well-known varieties such as chenin and riesling are derived — had been grown continuously for 900 years, long enough for a good many vintages.
Unlike many agricultural crops, which grow annually from seed, grapevines are normally propagated by replanting trimmings from an existing vine.
This saves both time and the risk of producing an inferior wine, and the new plants are genetically identical to their predecessors.
This means that a single generation of a grape variety can last for hundreds of years.
Written records suggest viniculture in France dates back to the sixth century BCE, introduced by the Greeks to their colony Massalia, the modern-day Marseille.
But until now scientists have been unable to accurately date many specific varieties, nor have they been able to chart how older vines are related to those used in winemaking today.
A Europe-wide team of archaeologists and geneticists analyzed the genomes of 28 grape pips unearthed at nine dig sites across France, the oldest dating to around 2,500 years ago.
They then cross-referenced them with a DNA database of modern varieties.
“We were able to show that we can identify varieties in the past, we can use these archaeological samples and get DNA from them and link them to modern varieties,” Nathan Wales, from the University of York’s Department of Archaeology, told AFP.
Among the most corking discoveries was savignan, a white grape variety dated to 1100 CE.
Savignan is today used to produce the famed vin jaune of the Jura region, which gets its unique palate and color from being stored in oak barrels for up to six years.
“That shows us that this grape has been maintained for at least 900 years,” said Wales, lead author of the study published in the journal Nature Plants.
“People have been taking that plant, cutting it, grafting it and maintaining that lineage. We have never had the opportunity to understand how long these processes have been going on.”

Savignan is the mother variety for more than two dozen white grapes, including gruner veltliner, chenin, riesling and petit manseng.
The team also found that humagne blanche, a white grape grown today in the Swiss Alps, was directly related to grapes grown in southern France by the Romans.
“There are stories where at some point Romans took vines into the Alps in Switzerland, and this shows that these stories were probably true,” said Wales.
“We have really close relationships between the archaeological samples and samples grown today.”
Other famous grapes, such as chardonnay and pinot noir, were proven to be virtually genetically identical to other Roman varieties.
“It kind of gives a new appreciation for this tradition, of winemaking, and the longevity of it,” Wales said.
“We knew that the Romans were doing cuttings but we didn’t know how long these particular grapes had been around but now we can see that these lineages have been maintained for thousands of years.”


High-end rebrand makes life sweet for Japan’s ‘ice farmers’

Updated 18 August 2019

High-end rebrand makes life sweet for Japan’s ‘ice farmers’

  • Reinventing natural-made ice as a high-end artisanal product has helped revive the ice-farming trade
  • The blocks are sold to some of Tokyo’s high-end shaved ice shops as well as department stores

NIKKO, Japan: In a mountainous area north of Tokyo, a priest blows a conch shell as Yuichiro Yamamoto bows and thanks the nature gods for this year’s “good harvest”: natural ice.
Yamamoto is one of Japan’s few remaining “ice farmers,” eschewing the ease of refrigeration for open-air pools to create a product that is sold to high-end shaved ice shops in trendy Tokyo districts.
His trade had all but disappeared in recent decades, and the shaved ice or kakigori that is popular throughout Japan in summer had been produced with cheap machine-made ice.
But reinventing natural-made ice as a high-end artisanal product has helped revive the sector and save his firm.
“When I started making natural ice, I wondered how I should market it. I thought I needed to transform kakigori,” Yamamoto says at his ice-making field in the town of Nikko, north of Tokyo.
Yamamoto took over a traditional ice-making business 13 years ago in Nikko, where he also runs a leisure park.
At the time, shaved ice cost just ¥200 ($2) in the local area and Yamamoto, who was fascinated by traditional ice-making, knew he couldn’t make ends meet.
“My predecessor used to sell ice at the same price as the fridge-made one, which can be manufactured easily anytime throughout the year,” the 68-year-old says.
The situation made it “impossible” to compete he explains, as producing natural ice is labor intensive.
Instead he decided to transform cheap kakigori into a luxury dessert, made with his natural ice and high-grade fruit puree rather than artificially flavored syrup.
After months of research, he began producing his own small batches of artisanal kakigori.
“I put the price tag at ¥800 for a bowl of kakigori. I also priced the ice at ¥9,000 per case, which is six times more than my predecessor,” he says.
At first, there were days he threw away tons of ice because he could not find clients.
But one day buyers from the prestigious Mitsukoshi department store discovered his product, and began stocking it, turning around his fortunes.
Kakigori dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185) when aristocratic court culture flourished in the then-capital of Kyoto.
It was a rare delicacy reserved for the rich, with the ice naturally made and stored in mountainside holes covered with silver sheets.
It was only after 1883, when the first ice-making factory was built in Tokyo, that ordinary people could taste the dessert.
With the development of ice-making machines, the number of traditional ice makers dropped to fewer than 10 nationwide.
The story is one familiar to many traditional Japanese crafts and foodstuffs — with expensive and labor-intensive products losing ground as cheaper, machine-driven versions become available.
And making ice naturally is a grueling task.
The season begins in the autumn when workers prepare a swimming-pool-like pit by cultivating the soil and pouring in spring water.
Thin frozen initial layers are scraped away along with dirt and fallen leaves.
The ice-making begins in earnest in the winter, when water is poured in to freeze solid, but it must be carefully protected. Producers regularly scrape off snow that can slow the freezing process.
“I once spent 16 hours non-stop removing snow,” Yamamoto recalls.
And rain too can ruin the product, causing cracks that mean the whole batch has to be discarded.
“I check the weather forecast 10 times a day,” Yamamoto laughs.
Once the ice is 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) thick, which takes at least two weeks, workers begin cutting out rectangular blocks.
Each block, which weighs about 40 kilograms (88 pounds), is glided into an ice room filled with sawdust on a long bamboo slide.
The blocks are sold to some of Tokyo’s high-end shaved ice shops as well as department stores.
In the Yanaka district, more than 1,000 people queue up every day for a taste of kakigori made with natural ice produced by another ice-maker from Nikko.
Owner Koji Morinishi says the naturally made ice has a texture that is different from machine-made products.
“It feels very different when you shave it. It’s harder because it’s frozen over a long period of time,” explains Morinishi.
“It’s easier to shave really thin if the ice is hard. If not hard, it dissolves too quickly.”
Morinishi himself struggled when he first opened the kakigori shop, but has gradually built a cult following for his desserts topped with purees of mango, watermelon, peach or other fruit.
And Yamamoto’s firm has seen demand soar — he now harvests 160 tons a year and knows two new producers who have entered the market.
He says: “This business has become attractive and the ice makers are all busy.”