The recent New York Times article telling us that the lack of sex is hurting the health of wine grapes, got me thinking. How do grapes have sex? First of all, grapes are ‘bisexual.

It all ideally starts with the flower having both male and female sex organs, how convenient is that? The male pollen lands on the female equivalent, the stigma. The fertilization process results in a crossing of genes. If the pollen from a chardonnay is carried by the winds to land on a bold syrah, the union combines their genes. Will this result in a Syr Char?

This new variety can then only be propagated through cuttings. If the genes in this new variety are allowed to pollinate another flower, once again we’d have another new variety. So for thousands of years, winegrowers haven’t allowed the grapes to have sex. How do they prevent that, are there condom for vines?

How do grapes reproduce? I’ll bet you never thought about it, I sure didn’t until I read the NY Times article. In it they claim that the lack of sex among the grapes has weakened the grape families, just like in breeding of royal families which passed on weak traits, like hemophilia, while attempting to hold on to the ‘royal’ genes.

The wine grapes we know today are all hybrids grown from cuttings onto healthy root stock. The mating of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc gave us Cabernet Sauvignon.  Who would have thought that a softish red and an angular white could create such a bold full-spirited red grape?

Through years of cultivation, grapes have not been allowed to cross in the wild to marry or at least have sex. Hence, cultivated vines are said to be vulnerable needing protection against disease. Those ‘breeders’ worried about this sexual starvation by the grape clan have taken artificial insemination to a new low. That is, they are plucking genes from one hardy grape offering it to another variety attempting to enhance immune powers to protect against disease.

But then does that become a genetically modified grape? Do we want that to happen? Would they still be considered organically grown after once modified in the lab, when out in the vineyard they are grown to organic or biodynamic standards?

To be perfectly clear, I find the whole notion of grape sex seductive, but not as much as human involvements. I also prefer enjoying my wine without worrying about sexual abstinence by the grape. In the end it is the luscious elixir created by those sex-starved grapes that makes a date romantic, a meal more enjoyable, and conversation intriguing.


4 Comments

  1. Awesome information. Thanks.

  2. Sacre Bleu Wine, a fascinating website, recently expanded grape sex information. Check it out. http://sacrebleuwine.com/news/a-lack-of-grape-sex/

  3. Thanks David – now I will have to see a picture of all that. So how do grapegrowers prevent self-pollination?

  4. david Turchin

    Sandra,
    You are talking about “calyptra”, the flower cap. the vine flower consists of 5 petals joined together in the form of an inverted cup. The cap separates as a unit and falls from the grape flower at flowering and exposes the “stamens”, which produce pollen, and the “stigma”, which receives pollen. ergo, grape sex.

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