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Vine diversity project sketches path ahead for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

Published:  06 February, 2023

A plant breeding research project looking at how Sauvignon Blanc vines adapt to external stress in New Zealand could unlock the future potential for the grape when facing an increasingly ‘chaotic’ climate.

New Zealand Winegrowers, together with the New Zealand government and industry partners, is currently looking into how plants adapt to stress in various environmental scenarios, in order to produce a collection of diverse Sauvignon Blanc vines.

Several thousand new vines are being grown and, in future, will be screened for key traits using genetic sequencing and nursery trials. The hope is that future winegrowers will be able to plant new types of locally developed Sauvignon Blanc vines which improve the resilience, productivity, sustainability and quality of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

The project was presented to a wider audience as part of New Zealand Wine Week (30 January to 7 February), in a session hosted by scientist and communicator Dr Jamie Goode, who also published a treatise on the Science of Sauvignon a decade ago.

Originating from France and transplanted to New Zealand back in the 1970s, most of the highly successful commercial New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc on the market today traces back to a single clone, known locally as UCD1.

During the session, Dr Darrell Lizamore, who is helping to lead the project at the Bragato Research Institute, described the process as an accelerated version of what happens naturally in vineyards and gardens.

Just like roses or other plants and flowers, vines spontaneously mutate. Their DNA changes as they develop and grow in vineyards. However, in everyday conditions, the process can be extremely slow, as “every time a cell divides and becomes two cells, it has to copy all of the DNA; and that happens an awful lot of times in the growth of a vine”, said Lizamore.

By exposing the vines to adverse stress, aka an atypical environment such as increased humidity or dry soils, the vine is shocked into having to change in order to adapt to its environment – and a lot more quickly.

“It makes sense as plants can’t run away from an adverse environment like animals can, so they need to be able to adapt suddenly. So, what we’re doing is taking Sauvignon Blanc plant material, and basically distressing it, giving it a controlled stress treatment so that it removes the inherent silencing of its own mutation and leads it to become more genetically diverse.

“It’s just for a short period, as we don’t want the vines to pick up more than one random change, because then you can end up with an improvement and a disadvantage at the same time. But essentially, it’s what you see in vineyards all the time. People will have seen plants suddenly change in their gardens: a rose bush that’s usually red suddenly produces a yellow one,” Lizamore said.

Emma Marris of Marisco Vineyards, was also present at the online session. Her grandfather was involved in planting some of the first New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc vines in Marlborough back in the 1970s.

She added: “Not much has changed since then, in terms of the vine material we’re putting into the ground, only the winemaking and cultural management. We’ve had amazing results out of that, and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is now known around world. But looking to future generations with a changing climate… it’s exciting to have a plethora of material now that’s going to be available, which will help us to make strategic choices with what we grow. This will be the fundamental starting point, but will support the process through to the production of wine.”

A number of New Zealand wine companies are backing the project, which so far, has produced 4,000 vines. From there, the test sample is going to be scaled up and vines which have ‘potential’ will be prioritised.

Goode also said that the most interesting part of the project’s application will be to see how the vines react when introduced to specific sites.

“I think the best way to approach this type of project is not to try and make a better plant and replace the UCD1 clone with UCD1.2 and everyone swaps them all out,” Lizamore said.

“It would be better, at least in the early stages, for example, if we move towards sites that need better water usage and pick the selection of a dozen new clones all showing improvements in that area, before making our selections. So, we don’t just put all our eggs in one basket… but have a true selection of plants that have been designed for their environment. As a geneticist, that is quite exciting.”

Marris concluded: “The key word is ‘diversity’. It’s not about changing what we’re doing as an industry per se, but adding layers and depth and breadth. It’s about evolution and innovation, which is something we certainly do quite well as an industry.”

The Bragato Institute was launched in 2017 through programme funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and is a wholly owned subsidiary of New Zealand Winegrowers, the national industry body for growers and wineries.

For more on the evolution of Sauvignon Blanc and where the story goes from here, be sure to read the February edition of Harpers, published online and in print next week.