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Wild vines

wild wine (GB)
vignes sauvages (F)

Term for natural occurrences of vines that have developed as species (types) and subspecies (subspecies) in the course of the long history of evolution. However, wild vines should not be confused with the vine genera referred to as wild wine. The artareas reflect the climate and vegetation history of the respective settlement areas and provide information about the adaptability of the species. Where the areas of different species overlap, viable natural hybrids could be formed by natural crossing. Based on the numerous finds of fossil seeds, wood remains and leaf imprints, it is considered proven that wild pre-forms of grapevines existed already at the end of the Cretaceous (Early Eocene) and in the early Quaternary (Oligocene), i.e. about 60 to 80 million years ago. The ice ages (100,000 to 10,000 years before today) pushed the wild vines native to Central Europe back into the Mediterranean and the lowlands of the then non-existent Black Sea and Central Asia.

Wild vines in Europe, Asia and America

One of the oldest descriptions of wild vines (besides those in the Bible) comes from the voyages of the Icelandic Leif Eriksson in the Grenlinga saga, who reached the famous Vinland on the east coast of the USA (Massachusetts) around the year 1000. In the 17th century, European settlers found lush wild vines in the forests of North America. Today, there are even larger populations in the east and southeast of the North American continent, as well as in Asia, especially in China.

Europäerrebe - Vitis vinifera ssp. sylvestris

Due to the climatic conditions in Europe described in the following, only Vitis vinifera is the only species to have survived here. It is divided into the cultivated form Vitis vinifera ssp. vinifera (obsolete Vitis vinifera ssp. sativa) and the wild form Vitis vinifera ssp. sylvestris Gmelin. The subspecies Vitis vinifera ssp. caucasica Vavilov was separated from these, but this cannot be reconstructed today. The latter two are named after the botanists Johann G. Gmelin (1709-1755) and Nikolai I. Vavilov (1887-1943). In contrast, there are the large species groups of the Asian vines and American vines, each with about 20 species.

Development in Europe

During the periods of the interglacial warm periods, new vine stocks were constantly forming in Central Europe, which were then wiped out again by the following ice ages. After the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, during the following warm period (5500 to 2500 BC) with its subtropical monsoon climate, wild vines also returned to Central Europe together with other woody species. The widespread spread of the vines was mainly caused by birds, which ate the berries together with the seeds and excreted the indigestible seeds somewhere with the bird droppings. In the floodplains, floods also contributed to the spread. Thus, more and more new wild vines were able to spread in the oak mixed forests and floodplain forests, which were much lighter at that time.

Together with the tree species advancing northwards, wild vines may have been widespread up to the far north and into the montane stage, because the forest line was about 200 m higher than today. In the light mixed oak forests, wild vines appeared in bush form or clung to upright trees up to 20 metres high. They probably became as old as their carrier trees, i.e. about 80 to 300 years old. From about 2500 BC onwards, the climate deteriorated noticeably and in this cooler phase, dark closed beech forests became the dominant forest formation in Central Europe from 1800 BC onwards. As a consequence, the European wild vine stocks were pushed back to the large floodplains, because in the extremely shady and long-lived hall forests (without ground vegetation) formed by beech or in the now much cooler mountain forests, budding seedlings were no longer offered adequate growth and living conditions.

However, reproductive wild vine populations have survived in thousands of specimens in the light softwood meadows of the large river valleys of the Danube, Rhine, Rhône and their tributaries. Only there did the annual floods create a dynamic and structurally rich mosaic of vegetation from the most diverse stages of plant communities. In the constantly new clearings with budding shrubs and natural tree rejuvenation, the light and warmth-loving lianas were offered optimal growing and climbing conditions. In addition, the deposited mud created the ideal germination bed for seed germination. In more southerly regions, with increasing drought, it was also the river valleys that could still provide the vines with sufficient water, light and settlement dynamics

Wildreben auf der Ketscher Rheininsel (Baden-Württemberg)

They are almost extinct in Europe today as a result of clearings at the end of the 19th century, planting of forests, targeted removal of wild vine thickets, as well as extensive straightening of rivers and drainage of alluvial forests. Some remnants can still be found in Spain (Basque Country), France (on the banks of the Garonne, Loire and Rhône), in Germany (on the upper reaches of the Rhine), in Switzerland (Lake Geneva), in Austria (in the Lobau floodplain near Vienna), in the Balkans and along the Danube, especially in Serbia and Romania. On the Ketscher Rheinisel (a nature reserve), west of the name-giving municipality of Ketsch in Baden-Württemberg, the largest population of wild vines Vitis vinifera subsp. sylvestris in Germany can be found.

Differences between wild and cultivated vines

If you take a wild vine into cultivation and grow and prune it like a cultivated vine, the difference between cultivated and wild vines is not so big. The most significant difference is the so-called dioeciousness, i.e. the vines of the wild vines only carry functionally male or only functionally female flowers and are thus dependent on cross-pollination. However, there are still some functional female cultivated grape varieties, and about 1 to 5% of the wild vines in still existing stands bear hermaphroditic flowers. However, the rule for wild vines are dioecious plants with unisexual flowers, blue berries, elongated internodes and long functional vines. The monoecious cultivated vines mostly bear hermaphroditic flowers (see also detailed information under flower).

Other characteristics of wild vines are relatively small, loose grapes and small berries with comparatively large seeds, although the grapes of some species can easily compete with small-berry Central European varieties. Also genotypically, it is difficult to make a clear distinction between European wild vine and European cultivated vine. In the case of the wild species, however, one does not speak of varieties but of forms, and instead of well-sounding names one often uses the collector, collection place and numbers. Two such forms are Vitis vinifera ssp. sylvestris Ketsch 7 (after the Ketscher Rheininsel site in Baden-Württemberg) and Vitis cinerea Arnold (after the American botanist Charles Arnold).

It is highly probable, however, that the remaining wild vine stocks can no longer be regarded as original. Due to geographical isolation and tiny population sizes, the remaining populations in Central and Southern Europe show incest symptoms on the one hand, which are genotypically expressed in an increased degree of homozygosity of the alleles. On the other hand, some of these are already plants into which genes from cultivated vines or hybrid varieties may have spontaneously crossed over through pollen from neighbouring vineyards. The similarities between Rhenish wild vines and old cultivated varieties such as Pinot Noir, Riesling or Traminer must therefore not be misinterpreted. Presumably, these similarities are not due to selection from wild vine stocks or the spontaneous cross-pollination of wild vine pollen into the cultivated stocks. Rather, the cultivated vine stocks may have crossed into the wild vine stocks.

Development of the grape varieties

Spontaneous new species formation is still taking place today. Traces of hybrid vines of the American species Vitis labrusca, Vitis riparia or Vitis rupestris, once used as rootstocks, are often found. Favoured by the fungal resistance some of them could develop into new hybrid vines. Obviously, hybrid genes have already crossed into some European wild vines, because in the genotypic profiles of some wild vine stocks of the Rhine and Danube, alleles can be found which otherwise only occur in American vines but cannot be found in any of the old European varieties. Wild vine stocks are subject to natural evolution and selection. Therefore, they are often characterised by increased resistance to native diseases or negative environmental influences. Most American wild vines have developed defence mechanisms against phylloxera and both types of mildew, while Asian vines have had to survive low frost temperatures.

The wild European vines, on the other hand, did not have to develop such resistances, since until the middle of the 19th century there was no selection pressure for phylloxera or mildew resistance and the frosts in the low-lying river valleys were not as severe. Today's remaining populations, with the exception of the even larger populations on the lower Danube, are hardly able to actively reproduce due to tiny numbers and difficult germination conditions. Without reproduction, these already outdated populations at natural sites are inevitably doomed to extinction, so that evolutionary processes of adaptation to new pests are no longer to be expected from there. For this reason, resistant wild species from America and Asia are still used in resistance breeding as gene donors for fungus-resistant new breeds.

Historically, the first cultivated grape varieties probably originate from wild forms that survived on the edge of the Caucasus some 7,500 years ago. Over thousands of years, through selection, further crossbreeding, re-selection and targeted or spontaneous crossbreeding, the cultivated grape varieties that are still preserved today have developed from these wild forms. It is not known when in the past targeted breeding (crossbreeding) began. Probably as early as 9,000 years ago, wild vines were collected and used by Stone Age people, as is proven by grape seeds found in Asia Minor. The actual domestication, i.e. the cultivation of cultivars for wine production, probably began six to eight thousand years ago in Transcaucasia on the southern edge of the Caucasus and in Mesopotamia. According to the latest research, viticulture with cultivated vines developed in the southeast of Anatolia not far from Ararat in present-day Turkey.

Spread of the cultivated vines

From there, viticulture spread westwards (Anatolia, Mediterranean, Balkans/Danubian countries) and southwards (Mesopotamia, Jordan Valley, Egypt) and eastwards (Iran, Afghanistan, China), where the wine culture was refined by the ancient advanced civilizations of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Persians and Sumerians. Presumably, in each historical wine growing region, new varieties have been created at different times through seedling sowing and selection. Certainly some of these ancient varieties were introduced to southern Europe by Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) and others perhaps before him, and were cultivated and spread by the Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans. It is likely that the Indo-Germanic Celtic peoples in Gaul and the Balkans already had regionally climate-adapted varieties for vine growing long before the Roman Empire was established. The Bronze Age long-distance trade contributed to the general spread of grape varieties from Asia Minor and the Mediterranean region.

As already mentioned, wild vines are usually dioecious. To produce fruit on female plants, pollinator plants are needed in the neighbourhood. Presumably the rare cases of hermaphroditic and large-grabbing female plants in the wild vine populations were specifically selected and cultivated in the gardens together with imported varieties, possibly crossed with each other in early times and sown again until higher-yielding varieties with hermaphroditic flowers were bred. The hermaphroditic flowers make the cultivated vine a self-pollinator, thus ensuring a regular yield. Today, the varieties of the cultivated vine Vitis vinifera ssp. vinifera comprise almost only hermaphroditic and some old female varieties. Today, wild vines are often used as decorative vines on walls or pergolas. The pictures show American(Vitis riparia) and Asian species(Vitis coignetiae) at Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam(Brandenburg).

Wildreben - Vitis riparia und Vitis coignetiae inm Schloss Sanssouci in Potsdam

Perhaps the all-female grape varieties still preserved in large quantities in the Balkan region are an eloquent testimony to this perhaps already very old breeding tradition. Written records document the deliberate fertilisation of mother varieties with pollen from selected father varieties, followed by sowing and seedling selection, however, only from the middle of the 19th century onwards, initially for England and France, later increasingly for the whole of Europe. Probably the ancient advanced civilizations were already engaged in targeted cross-breeding, but after the collapse of the Roman Empire at the latest, this knowledge, which was probably never recorded in writing, was unfortunately lost during the turmoil of the migration of peoples and in the anti-scientific Middle Ages.

further information

For more information on this topic, see also Ancient grape varieties and grapevine classification. A comprehensive list of relevant keywords concerning grapevine can be found under the keyword grapevine.

Picture above: By Javier martin - Own work, public domain, link
Picture middle: From AnRo0002 - Own work, CC0, Link
Pictures below: FassadenGrün

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