Popular French grapes Syrah and Pinot Noir genetically traced back 2000 years

Using a genetic database of modern grapevines, researchers were able to test and compare 28 archaeological seeds from French sites dating back to the Iron Age, Roman era, and medieval period.

They discovered one, Savagnin Blanc (not to be confused with Sauvignon Blanc) grape was genetically identical to a seed excavated from a medieval site in Orléans in central France. That means the variety has grown for at least 900 years as cuttings from just one ancestral plant.

Savagnin Blanc, from the Jura region of France, is thought to have been popular in the past but is primarily consumed locally now. It’s either a fluke of luck or it was really popular in the past that explains why it would hail from a single plant. No others traced so far survived identically genetic. Over the centuries almost all grapes have been genetically engineered to be small, thick-skinned, full of seeds, and packed with sugar and other compounds such as acids, phenols, and aromas. Great for making wine but not so great for eating, which is why ancient seeds do not have a strong genetic link to modern table grapes.

Pic Saint Loup Mountain in southern France. Credit: S. Ivorra CNRS/ISEM

But Roman seeds did find an ancient genetic link with two important modern grape families used to produce popular wine. These include the Syrah-Mondeuse Blanche family (Syrah being one of the most planted grapes in the world today) and the Mondeuse Blanche, produced in Savoy, as well as the Pinot-Savagnin family.

Pinot Noir is now termed the “king of wine grapes”, a designation Savagnin Blanc must have once had.