José Vouillamoz is one of the world’s leading authorities on the origin and parentage of grape varieties. A prominent botanist, José has identified over 300 grape varieties since he first started working on DNA profiling back in 2001. He has also tasted more grape varieties than most. Co-author of Wine Grapes with fellow Circle members Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding, José has published articles and research internationally and has just released his own book on the history and variety of Swiss wine grapes. Amanda Barnes interviews him from the wine shop of the legendary raclette restaurant, Château de Villa, in his native Switzerland.
How did you get into wine?
Big question. It was to justify my alcoholism [laughs]. No! I was trained as a biologist and during my PhD thesis, I used DNA profiling to classify the families and the genera of plants. Some of them were very obscure and with the exception of two or three experts, no one had ever heard of them. At the same time I was a wine lover and getting more and more into wine collecting and tasting, and I thought to myself that we could use the same technique to classify or identify grape varieties. Of course, I wasn’t the first one to think about doing that. The first people who identified grape varieties with DNA profiling were in Australia, in 1993 and 1994. Then, in 1997 at UC Davis in California, the person who became my professor, Carol Meredith, and John Bowers, a PhD student started to do it in the US and they found the first unexpected parentage of a grape variety, which was the parent of Cabernet Sauvignon. They were able to find out that the natural, spontaneous parents of Cabernet Sauvignon were Cabernet Franc, no surprise there, and Sauvignon Blanc, big surprise, except that the name is similar – it looks a little bit like ‘wild’ grape – sauvage in French is wild. No one had ever thought that one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon could be white and I thought that was fantastic.
I looked at the Swiss grape varieties and nobody had ever done any studies on them. I got a grant from the Swiss government to go for one year to UC Davis and learn the technique with Carol Meredith, [working] with Swiss grapes, which may seem a bit weird but that’s how science works. I started to make my first discoveries in 2001 and 2002, and then the virus was in me [laughs].
What’s been the greatest challenge in working in a scientific part of the wine industry?
The scientific part in this kind of study is the same as in any other scientific study, except that what we’re working on is more exciting for me. I was really surprised as I was honestly expecting [to meet] a bunch of wine lovers with whom I could share my experience, my interest and my curiosity of tasting different wines and different varieties. I was surprised that besides Carol Meredith, who was a wine lover and a connoisseur and left to make wine with her husband in Napa Valley, most of the others had no idea. One colleague, who was from Pakistan, didn’t drink wine, but she really loved the scientific and technical side. This is what struck me. Scientifically speaking, the DNA profiling that we use for identifying grape varieties is exactly the same as the one you use for human beings. One doesn’t present more challenges than the other. Maybe keeping sober is the challenge [laughs].
You have many roles as a wine educator, writer and researcher. What is your favourite hat to wear?
What I like best is to share my knowledge and to transmit it to the general public and to make complex science available to the general public, which requires some work because it’s not instant and you need to really figure out how to communicate best. It is work that I really like to do and I think it’s my favourite part.
In your more than 15 years of working in the industry, have you seen consumer interest in wine science grow?
I think consumer interest has increased because when I started discussing my discoveries about grape varieties or my colleagues’ discoveries some 15 years ago, when you said the word DNA, people would instantly think of GMOs. I had to explain that DNA has nothing to do with GMOs. DNA is in every living organism. I’m not talking about modifying it – I’m talking about studying it. Then it became better understood and people saw that it was a way to gain a better understanding of heritage and the relationships between grape varieties, as well as between wine regions.
Before DNA profiling arrived to the study of grapes, you could have the same variety in two different countries with different names and nobody knew they were the same, because they were not grown side by side. The same variety had travelled so long ago that it had been forgotten about. Then you say variety A in Romania is the same as variety B in Italy, for example. You match the DNA and find that it’s the same, then people would plant them side by side and realise that they are the same.
With parentage analysis, it is fascinating to see how emotional people can get when you speak about the origins of grape varieties. I’ve made parentage discoveries in Switzerland, in Italy and in other countries, and many times people almost felt sick. Some people said they feel a pain in the stomach when they hear that the variety they love comes from the other side of the mountain.
So you’re the bearer of bad news!
I am, but I’m proud of it [laughs]. Some people say I’m an iconoclast, but I love it. I have examples from Switzerland, but the most famous one is Sangiovese. When I discovered the parents of Sangiovese, which was started in 2004 and published in 2007, [I found that] one of the parents is Ciliegiolo, from Tuscany so no problem! The other parent, Calabrese di Montenuovo, is from Calabria, and that was a problem because Italy is so special, and the north and south are not really happy together for some people. Learning that Sangiovese is half Tuscan and half Calabrian was a shock to many people. I had some strong reactions about that because for some people in northern Italy, the south is almost Africa. I’m Swiss and neutral, so I can see it with some distance.
It reminds me of the DNA testing that people do on reality TV shows. You should film some of the reactions…
I’ve seen one with a racist American. These ancestry kits that you can buy online don’t tell you much about your real ancestry. They give a general picture and don’t have much meaning for geneticists or scientists. I think they are used mainly for commercial reasons and they don’t tell you much about your ancestry.
Do you ever get tired of tasting exotic varieties from around the world?
Never! In the book, Wine Grapes, which Masters of Wine and fellow Circle of Wine Writers members Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding, and myself published in 2012, we calculated 1,368 grape varieties that at that point in time were being cultivated to make wine that was commercially available. One day somebody asked me how many of these I’d tasted. I did the maths and by today I’ve tasted almost 600 of them. I still have a lot of work ahead. We have some varieties from Azerbaijan, and you never have the chance to see a bottle. We also included varieties that are not made as single varietal wines and can be just 5 per cent of a blend. You can count them but you don’t really understand the variety and the taste of the variety. But who else has tasted 600?
Have you got anyone that can play the A-Z grape naming game as well as you?
Probably not, but there is The Wine Century Club, started by Steve de Long, and to enter the wine club you must have tasted at least 100 varieties. That’s not easy if you’re honest with yourself. Well, 600 is not bad!
How about Jancis and Julia?
What do you like to drink mid-week? Could you pick one grape variety that you like to drink on a Tuesday, for example?
The more I drink, the more I’m moving towards wines with good drinkability. I’ve been through these competition wines that are very powerful, full-bodied, showy and impressive, but after one glass you get tired, which is something I’m trying to avoid right now. On a Tuesday, a nice bottle of Gamay would do it – fruity and not too high in alcohol.
Watch the full interview online: