Critics who praise the "complexity" of red Burgundy and Champagne are on target.
A team of French and Italian researchers has mapped the genome of the pinot noir grape, used to make bubbly and many red wines from France's Burgundy region and around the world — and it has about 30,000 genes in its DNA.
That's more than the human genome, which contains some 20,000 to 25,000 genes.
The team published its findings in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, saying it identified the nearly half a billion chemical building blocks of the grape's DNA. Certain sequences of these building blocks form genes, like letters spelling words.
These discoveries won't make any immediate difference to wine drinkers worldwide. The pinot noir is the first grape — and first fruit — ever genetically mapped, and it would take years to apply this new knowledge to today's vines. But down the line, it could possibly lead to hardier grape varieties, more resistant to bugs and disease.
The team said its research had confirmed that the grape has an unusually high number of genes whose job it is to create flavor. More than 100 of its genes are dedicated to producing tannins and terpenes — compared to about 50 for other plants, said researcher Patrick Wincker.
He said the mapping of those flavor-producing genes could be a first step toward developing new flavors in wine by allowing scientists to breed different varieties to create precise new tastes.
But flavor also depends on external factors such as weather, microclimate, soil, size of the crop, age of the vines and the winemaker's art.
With so many flavor compounds potentially at play, these other factors become even more important, said Allen Meadows of burghound.com, a leading Burgundy critic who did not participate in the study.
Meadows said the research helps explain why wines made from pinot noir grapes have a huge variety of aromas and flavors.
"The research is genetic confirmation of what Burgundy and pinot noir lovers have known for centuries, which is that pinot noir is exquisitely sensitive to where and how it is grown," Meadows said. "Pinot-based wines produced in say Burgundy, while similar, are still distinctly different from those produced in California, Oregon or New Zealand."
In any case, Wincker said new flavors derived from genetic manipulation are years away and would likely be so subtle it would take a sophisticated palate to be able to appreciate them.
But he did not rule out the possibility that distinctive — and highly noticeable — new flavors might yet emerge.
"Anything can happen," Wincker said. "Biology doesn't always work out in the way you'd expect."
Identifying the genes grape plants use to defend themselves from mildew and insects would also allow researchers to breed new, more resistant varieties, Wincker said.
France's Agriculture Ministry, which helped fund the multimillion dollar project, hailed the team's findings. Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier said he hoped the findings would help in developing more environmentally friendly grape varieties.
Andre Barlier, assistant director of Viniflhor, a government-funded agency to support French wine, said it was laudable that the team's findings were made public so that researchers around the world can continue to work on them. But he said he doubted the genome map would change the way French vintners make wine.
"In France we are very conservative and we work according to traditional ways," Barlier said. "I don't think it will have an impact in the short term."
The pinot noir is also used to make wine in Oregon, California, New Zealand, France's Loire valley and other areas. But in Burgundy, the wine takes on the name of the vineyard or surrounding village — Chambolle-Musigny, for example. Champagne and other sparkling wines are traditionally made from chardonnay or pinot noir, or a mixture of the two along with smaller amounts of other grapes.
Scientists have already mapped the genome for rice and other crops, but this was the first time a fruit has been mapped, Wincker said. It took the team, based in France's national genetic-sequencing laboratory in the Paris suburb of Evry, nearly two years to complete.