Happy Hour: Why Genetically Engineered Grapes Would Make Great Wine


I am 99.9 per cent sure that there will never be commercial production of genetically engineered wine grapes (“GMO” to use the common misnomer). Even so, I’d like to indulge in imagining what could be if we lived in some parallel universe where rational scientific thinking prevailed.

Wine grapes are an extremely logical crop for genetic engineering because there is no tolerance for changing varieties. For annual crops like grains or vegetables, new varieties are bred on a regular basis to solve pest issues or to improve features like taste or shelf life. Breeding of perennial fruit crops is a much, much slower process, but entirely new varieties are still introduced from time to time (e.g. Jazz or Pink Lady apples). Even what we call “heirloom varieties” of most vegetable or fruit crops are mostly quite young by wine grape standards.


Conventional breeding just isn’t a viable option for wine grapes, not because it couldn’t be done, but because in an industry so focused on quality and tradition, no one would consider it. The wine industry is based on specific varieties which are hundreds of years old and for which no new variety would ever be acceptable. That is true for varieties in their original appellations (e.g. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Burgundy or Cabernet Sauvignon and its blending partners in Bordeaux). It is also true for those same varieties that now make great wines in “New World” (e.g. Malbec in Argentina, Zinfandel in California, or Syrah in Australia).

Therefore, wine grape varieties have been cloned for hundreds of years, specifically to avoid any genetic change (they have always been grown from rooted cuttings or from grafted buds). Grapes make seeds, but the seed won’t grow up to be the same variety as the parent, thus they are never used as a way to grow new vines.

The Downside of Ancient Varieties

Of course, by sticking to very old varieties, wine grape growers must deal with many problems which might otherwise have been solved through breeding. Grape growers have been able to deal with some pests that attack the roots by grafting onto diverse “root stocks” with novel genetics. But rootstocks can only help with a limited number of grape growing challenges.

Why Genetic Engineering Would Be Logical For Grapes

Biotechnology is a perfect solution for wine grape issues because it allows changes to address one specific problem without disrupting any of the characteristics that determine quality. Of course, each variety would have to be individually transformed, but in our imaginary rational universe the regulatory regime would be made easier for multiple uses of the same basic genetic construct.

So, genetic engineering could be a very cool solution for various challenges for grapes. I’ll list a few of the diseases that might be fixable this way.

  • Mildews – Downy Mildew, Powdery Mildew
  • Rot Reduction – Botrytis Bunch Rot
  • Viral Diseases – Leafroll Virus
  • Pierce’s Disease – A Potentially Existential Threat

Voluntary “GMO labelling” Would Be Easy for Wine

Because wine grapes can be extremely valuable (e.g. as much as $US10-20,000/acre), and because quality is closely connected with the location where they are grown, “identity preservation” is common in the industry. It would be entirely feasible for grapes which were or were not “GMO” to be kept separate to what ever extent was desired. So, one winery could proudly label their wine as “improved via biotechnology to provide disease resistance,” while the neighbouring winery could confidently claim not to be “non-GMO” if they so desired. Again, remember I’m talking about what could happen in a parallel universe where reason prevails. In our universe reason quickly yielded to the politics of fear and unfounded concerns about “genetic contamination.”

So, there will probably never be commercial “GMO grapes” in our universe, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is a cool concept.

Pictures: Shutterstock/William J. Mahnken, Colorado Chardonnay SDSavage, University of Georgia Photo Archive, Wikipedia, Rotting Chardonnay SDSavage, Naotake Murayama, Oklahoma State University