Unnatural Selection: Mankind's Longstanding Interference in the Genetics of Wine

For a long time, humans were considered unique among all animals for their use of tools.  It was subsequently discovered that primates also use primitive tools.  However, there can be no argument that humans go the farthest in consciously changing the environment in which they live.  And this dominance is not exclusive to inanimate objects, for as long as humans have existed, it has extended to the very foundations of life itself.  

Modern science has entire fields of study devoted to genetic manipulation.  Fierce arguments rage over the subject, with proponents imagining a world free of disease, and opponents warning of dire unintended consequences.  To be sure, modern science has given rise to unprecedented and potentially dangerous capabilities that should give pause.  However, humans weren’t always so concerned about tinkering with genetics.  Indeed, there is a very uncontroversial example of genetic engineering in millions, if not billions, of houses around the world: the dog.  

Sometime between 11 and 16 thousand years ago -- with humans still hunting and gathering -- people began the process of domesticating the wolf.  As far as species classification goes, dogs, even toy poodles, continue to be wolves.  The myriad of shapes, sizes and temperaments are all simply variations on a genetic theme, and all dogs retain the ability to reproduce with wolves.  Humans, by carefully selecting the traits to be accentuated or suppressed in wolves, created a menagerie of companions, each with a specialized ability aimed at a specific task.

Several thousand years later, humans started to literally put down roots and began to domesticate plants as well.  However, the mechanics of plant reproduction are a bit more nuanced than those of canines.  It was quickly discovered that the planting of a grape seed does not necessarily yield a new plant with similar characteristics to the parent.  Unbeknownst to these early farmers was that the natural mechanism of pollination was unpredictably altering the genetic makeup of these seeds.  Another, more consistent method of replication is needed.  Farmers noted that when a portion of the vine is buried, it will grow roots.  Once established, a farmer can cut the vine from the original plant to create a new, genetically identical vine.  A clone.  

Centuries of selecting the choicest vines for cloning, or layering as it was called, yielded a similar result as the selective breeding of wolves and dogs: a plethora of different varieties that look, taste and act differently, but which are all the same species.  However, even with all of the human effort expended on intentional selection and propagation of vines, nature, unperturbed, continued its own experiments in tandem through cross-pollination.  As is often the case in wine, it is the combination of human labor and natural chance that yields the greatest rewards.  

Cultivation by humans led to two specific varieties, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, occupying the soils of 18th Century Bordeaux.   It could have been by a chance gust of wind, an industrious bee, or even the nose of a vineyard dog, but pollen -- the right grain of pollen -- found its way to the right flower.  The resulting grape fell to the ground, and the seed of the very first Cabernet Sauvignon vine took root.   The potential of wines made from these Cabernet Sauvignon grapes was immediately apparent and much of the next 100 years was spent replanting vineyards in the Haut-Medoc region of Bordeaux with clones of Cabernet Sauvignon.  The wines were hugely successful, and the intervening years have done nothing to halt the popularity of the the illustrious “Cab.”  In 2010, it became the most planted red wine grape in the world.  

While this anecdote may have little bearing on the morality of genetic tinkering, it reminds us that although humanity can accomplish a lot through labor and ingenuity, nature often supplies the masterstroke.  Cabernet Sauvignon from its birthplace in Bordeaux provides a great illustration of this.  And if you’re looking for one, Sociando-Mallet has always been a favorite.