New Rot-Resistant ‘Supergrapes’ Could Reduce Pesticide Use, But Traditionalists Caution a 'Race to the Bottom'

Beware of "Frankenstein wine," some winemakers say.

Wine Grapes
Photo: Pakin Songmor/Getty Images

It's no secret that vineyards across the world use pesticides as the first line of defense against a number of potentially devastating grapevine diseases. And it's also no secret that some winemakers and wine drinkers worry about the effects of said pesticides. (Case in point: all the biodynamic wine you've seen around lately, which harkens a return to old-school pest and rot-resistance measures.) Enter the team of French scientists who have been working on a different approach: Breeding disease-resistant “supergrapes," which have just gotten approval for use in French wines and which are expected to start going into bottles in 2020. Naturally, they're proving to be controversial in their own right.

Four new grape varieties developed by a breeding program known as ResDur, launched in 2000 at France’s National Institute of Agronomical Research (INRA), have finally gotten authorization to be used in French wines.

According to Didier Merdinoglu, who The Telegraph called the “father” of the INRA program, these grapes—two red, called Artaban and Vidoc, and two white, called Floreal and Voltis—can reduce the use of pesticides by 80 to 90 percent thanks to their resistance to two common diseases: downy and powdery mildew. “We are talking about dropping from an average of 15 treatments (for fungal disease) per year to one or two, above all to kill off other diseases and parasites,” he said according to the British paper.

A significant concern, however, is of course that these new crossbred varieties come at the expense of the wine itself, trading quality for resistance to disease. Sure, the INRA team suggests that the resulting grapes create a drinking experience “equivalent to that of traditional grape varieties,” The Drinks Business says. But the researchers reportedly didn’t name the original grapes used to create these new varieties, stating only that their productivity is similar to Grenache and Chardonnay. And that ambiguity opens the resulting wines up to criticism.

“Grape varieties in Europe have been developed by monks over centuries to suit the local soil. That is a wonderful heritage,” Thomas Dormegnies—a winemaker, researcher and taster—told The Telegraph. His beef isn’t with how these new grapes were produced, but their flavor, which he found underwhelming. He called the resulting products “Frankenstein wine,” saying that they offer the chance to create cheap products that represent a “race to the bottom towards industrial winemaking.”

Meanwhile, Laurent Audeguin of the French Institute of Vine and Wine didn’t necessarily disagree with this assessment, instead choosing to tell The Telegraph that time will tell. “We’ll see in which vineyards these varieties adapt the best and give the best results,” he was quoted as saying. “It takes decades to assess a grape variety’s true worth.” Even then, though, worth depends on what you value most: top-flight taste or less pesticide use at lower costs.

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