The grape growing and winemaking sector is a significant contributor to the BC economy. The number of wineries in BC has increased steadily and correspondingly so has output and economic value. The 2012 grape harvest generated 27,257 tonnes, creating more that 12,000 litres of wine, worth over $59 million*. Once produced, BC VQA wine generates sales over $200 million annually.
Chardonnay is the second most abundant white wine grape variety in the world and the second most planted white variety in British Columbia. Some champagnes, white burgundies and varietal Chardonnays – including a large proportion of the wines considered among the world’s most lauded and expensive – are all produced with Chardonnay grapes.
The economic significance, paired with the flexible aroma and flavor of Chardonnay grapes, has given rise to a number of grapevine selection and breeding programs with the goal of developing new grape characteristics. Winemakers use vegetative propagation or ‘clone’ grapevines by cutting a budding twig off the “mother vine” and then grafting it onto a specific rootstock. Even though these new hybrid vines are a replica of a parent vine, many of these ‘clones’ exhibit remarkable variation in fruit composition, flavor and aroma profile, ripening time, flower morphology, bunch morphology, yield and grape colour.
Vineyard owners can select clones based on flavor profile, berry size, cluster shape, vine yields, wine vigour, bud break, and tolerances to heat, humidity and drought. Since very little is known about the Chardonnay genome and even less about how the clones differ from the parent plant, knowledge about these differences would help determine how to produce the best wine.
Dr. Hennie van Vuuren at the University of British Columbia’s Wine Research Centre has partnered with colleagues in here in BC as well as Australia and United States to identify and map the genetic markers for Chardonnay grapes. The information generated through this collaboration will provide the baseline for analyzing the clones and thus how to replant vineyards and inform breeding programs.
* Current data about British Columbia’s wine industry can be found on the BC Wine Institute page: www.winebc.org.