Back to the Roots: an Ancient Cultivation
The history of cultivation of the grape is thought to be as long as that of human civilization, experts have found evidence of grape cultivation dating back to 6500 BC. All grapes are part of the family Vitacea which encompasses about 600 species of grape, the primary genus used in food and
wine production in Vitis, which includes 60 species, 12 of which are used to produce wines. Of these grapes, the European grape, Vitis vinifera L has been the most influential to the globalization of grape and wine culture (Trinklein, 2013). V. vinifera is indigenous to central Europe, southwestern Asia and the Mediterranean. In 4000 BC, grape cultivation had spread from Transcaucasia, through the Nile Delta to Asia Minor. (Trinklein, 2013). V. vinifera has since been introduced to all parts of the world, spreading with historical migration events, most significantly: colonization and imperialism. Grape cultivation has accompanied human advancements, impacting civilization and ultimately creating global interest further acting spread viticulture.
While grapes have been cultivated for multiple purposes, the primary reason is its use in the wine industry: approximately one fourth of the grapes produced today are used to make wine (Trinklein, 2013). The first archaeological evidence of wine production was found in jars near the Zagros Mountains in Iran, the jars were estimated to be approximately 7,400 years old. Archeologists at the site were able to identify the contents from tartaric acid profiles, which are associated with grapes. It is thought that these jars were used to make wine because of another compound from within the jar, Terebinth tree resin. Terebinth tree resin is an additive used to preserve wine in ancient times. Archeological evidence for the use of wine as medicine was found in the pyramid of pharaoh, Scorpion I. In this tomb, archaeologists found medicine vials containing plant compounds infused with wine, it is thought that the Egyptians knew naturally occurring plant compounds would remain active when dissolved in alcoholic medium. These medicines would then be applied or consumed to treat various ailments (Borrell, 2009).
Treated Through the Grapevine
The medicinal properties of V. vinifera are not just limited to its uses in wine, Europeans would take the sap from the grapevines and use it to treat wounds. Today, it is known that the various parts of the plant have different medicinal properties. The seeds may also be helpful in limiting the amount of dietary fat absorbed by the body. Leaves from the V. vinifera plant may be used as an astringent to minimize pores and improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The fruit itself has historically been used to treat a number of ailments from cholera and cancer to nausea and liver disease. Grapes are high in potassium and as a result can counteract some of the effects of a high sodium diet. Additionally, the fruit may have different uses depending on its condition, i.e. ripeness, dried, and skin color. Most notably is the presence of the polyphenol resveratrol, which is found in the skin of red grapes and used to reduce blood pressure and LDL levels (Ware, 2017).
Recently, the medicinal properties of wine has caught public attention with various claims being made as to the benefits of the beverage. Many of these claims are associated with the presence of resveratrol in wine. As a result, these benefits are most closely related to red wine consumptions. Resveratrol has been proven to have cardiovascular and chemopreventive properties (Baur and Sinclair, 2006). In another study resveratrol was found to improve the function of metabolic pathways (Lagouge et al., 2006). These research findings have supported the role of resveratrol in increasing human lifespan. This makes sense in light other scientific findings, in a GWAS (Genome Wide Association) looking for trends associated with long lifespans (over 100), found metabolic pathways to be important for longevity (Zeng et al., 2016).
From the Roots of Thy Neighbor
The grape species, Vitis vinifera was first introduced to the Americas by European colonists, but the genus was prevalent and thriving long before the arrival of the Europeans to the American coasts. These grapes, while hearty and much more resistant to diseases and various weather conditions, lacked much of the flavor the European colonists were used to. As a result, the Europeans continued making wine using V. vinifera instead of using the American varieties. Not long after the colonization of the Americas were the crops destroyed by the introduction of the American phylloxera to France.
Phylloxera are insects that lay their eggs in grape leaves and ultimately destroying the crop. While the European grapes were being ravaged by this insect, it was found that the American grapes, while distasteful had developed a resistance to the pests. Soon after this discovery, the grape cultivators created a hybrid grape, where they grafted the fruits of V. vinifera to the rootstock of an American grape. This cross resulted in a more resistant crop with the same taste (Clark, 2015) .
Presently, one of the largest issues facing domesticated grapes is climate change. While grafting has proved to be successful against the original threats of disease and parasites, the industry pressure of maintaining a true-breeding product increases the susceptibility of disease and decreases the crop’s resilience. There still a lot of diversity within the species, V. vinifera, that has been minimally explored, the future and health of this industry relies on the exploration and cultivation of different subspecies of this diverse group (Myles et al., 2010). The research group, VitisGen is currently looking into ways to increase the efficiency of grape production using genomic analysis to predict beneficial traits that produce more cost effective and resistant grapes (Jefferies, 2015).
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