Perfecting Pinot

Pinot Noir has always been a favorite with wine enthusiasts, but in recent years demand for this popular and perplexing variety has soared. American sales of pinot noir have risen 40 percent since the 2004 premiere of the movie "Sideways," and wine reviewers have only fanned the flames. Master sommelier Madeline Triffon, for instance, has compared pinot noir's sensual warmth to sex in a glass—"chock full of incredible texture and hedonistic pleasures." She calls it a wine "so seductive that it's very, very hard to say 'no' to."

Scientists have recently trained the tools of genetics on the beloved pinot-noir grape. Last month in the journal Nature, a consortium of biologists published the complete genome of the grapevine Vitis Vinifera. The study has caused a great deal of consternation and puzzlement among Europeans and unwelcome publicity for sommeliers and wine purists. The research is opposed not only by Europeans who are against genetically modified food of any sort but also by those who have been vigorously protective of wine making, an industry steeped in traditions that bind wine to the land on which its grapes are grown.

It would be bad enough if the research had been conducted in America, the evil empire of genetically modified food, or at the bidding of some big food company, but it was a wholly European initiative. The researchers hail from the French-Italian Public Consortium for Grapevine Genome Characterization, which is supported by the ministries of Agriculture in France and Italy and coordinated by the national research and statistical centers of each country. They undertook the work precisely because it makes it possible to tinker with the pinot-noir genome. Not only is pinot noir the easiest grape to sequence, but it is also the core grape plant in the species from which virtually every other grape is derived; having a sequence of the pinot-noir genome, in other words, would make it easier to sequence the genomes of other grapes. "This knowledge can be used in applied projects geared towards developing grapes that are resistant to diseases, contributing to agricultural practices that are compatible with the environment and reducing the use of chemicals," says Paolo de Castro, head of Italy's Ministry of Health, which helped fund the study.

Indeed, conditions like Pierce's disease and grapevine fanleaf virus account for revenue losses of tens of thousands of euros each year in the wine industry. Researchers state that a simple modification of the grape could lead to a greater resistance to disease and a decrease in the use of pesticide, which is often a necessary evil of wine making.

The study also reveals tantalizing clues as to what makes pinot noir, one of the most mysterious and complex grapes, tick. Pinot noir has 89 functional genes that contribute to its flavor and aroma, which get far more specific than the usual "woody " or "fruity" definitions. Now that scientists have identified what parts of the genome controls the production of key enzymes like those that govern the grape's essential oils and textures, they could theoretically manipulate and even bolster the grape's production of these enzymes.

Scientists also identified 43 genes that contribute to pinot noir's health benefits. The finding gives a boost to those who abide by the idea that wine is good for you. One such gene found in pinot grapes governs the production of resveratrol, an antioxidant present in red wines that is linked to health benefits like antiaging. Identifying this gene confirms that pinot noir has more health benefits than other varieties of red wine. It also means that the gene could be transplanted to other varieties without too much trouble.

With so much at stake—the global wine industry generates more than €150 billion annually—could the genetic modification of wine to enhance flavor be the next step? In North America, where GM is virtually unregulated, some wine makers already use yeast that has been genetically modified to quicken fermentation, thus reducing costs (the practice is taboo in French and Italian regions).

So far, no wine makers have publicly embraced the idea of GM wines. Some experts say any such move would backfire. For one thing, it would make characterizations of wine by grape variety meaningless. "Would my Cabernet Sauvignon still be called Cabernet Sauvignon?" asks Carole Meredith, a professor in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a vineyard owner. "If not, then why bother modifying the grapes if it is no longer the same wine?" Wine drinkers who appreciate pinot noir, which sells between $20 and $50 in the United States, wouldn't want a modified grape even if it tastes better, she says. Even if only a few vineyards started using GM grapes, consumers might start avoiding all wines from those regions for fear of contamination. That holds especially true in North America, where there is currently no requirement that GM foods be labeled. "People are very hesitant to accept wine that is made with this technology," warns Meredith.

So far, of course, there's been no discernable backlash against the use of GM yeast by North American vineyards. But many Europeans are worried merely by the prospect of scientists tampering with a beverage that has been around since about 4000 B.C. "What will the political powers do?" asks Roberto Conti, president of the Italian Foundation for Genetic Rights. "We should exclude from the start that someone could even think of making genetic modifications to the grape. Maybe a political leader from Greenland can think about this but certainly not in Italy, a producer of great wine." If the public ever did warm to the idea of tinkering with the genetic makeup of grapes, it could transform the wine industry, for better or worse. Either way, remember who started it.

Join the Discussion