COST Action FA1003

Grapevine (Vitis vinifera L.) is one of the most important horticultural crops cultivated in the world. Worldwide, it is grown on approximately 8 million hectares (Mha), mainly in Europe (4.6 Mha including former USSR), western Asia including Turkey (0.5 Mha) and Iran (0.3 Mha); in the Americas (1 Mha) and in Australia. Most of the grape production (72%) is aimed at wine making, even if table grapes for fresh consumption (27%) and raisin (1%) represent an important part of yield in some countries. Grapevine was cultivated at least 4000 years ago around the eastern part of the Black Sea, in the Caucasus. Since that time, wine – and with it grapevine – has spread throughout the world and has evolved from being a major part of the diet before the advent of safe drinking water to a social drink. In fact, Europe is the most important wine producing region in the world. The combined production of Italy, France and Spain nowadays accounts for more than 60% of the world’s production of wine. Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary and Turkey are also major players in wine production, both in terms of significant vineyard acreage and highly developed viticulture. In addition, grapevine production, based on proper, knowledge based use of genetic resources and on sustainable viticultural practices, provides a major potential source of income for local farmers, especially in low income transition countries of the Caucasus and eastern Europe. The distribution range of wild vine (Vitis vinifera subspecies silvestris), from which the cultivated forms of grapevine (Vitis vinifera subspecies sativa) developed, particularly during the first steps of the history of viticulture, includes southern Europe and more specifically the Mediterranean, Anatolian, Caucasus and Caspian regions. The two regions that are widely considered to be primary centres of domestication of grapevine, as well as centres of diversity in the domesticated forms, are the southern Caucasus and eastern Anatolia. From those regions, the cultivated forms of Vitis vinifera are thought to have moved westwards. The less ancient, secondary centres of domestication are presumed to be located throughout the entire distribution range of wild grapevine. New diversity of cultivated grapevine was developed in many suitable regions after local viticulture began, by crossing of different grapevine varieties, either locally domesticated or introduced from other regions. In this way thousands of grapevine varieties have been selected with a wide range of phenotypic traits based on a wide genetic background. As a general consequence of the evolution of viticultural systems and wine making in the last century, as well as the development of national and increasingly globalised, international markets, most present day viticulture is based on a very narrow range of cultivars in comparison to the large genetic diversity that characterized the past viticultural systems. In addition, the diversity of cultivated grapevine existing today has been drastically reduced owing to a deep transformation of viticulture, accelerated by the invasion of grapevine pests and diseases as well as the globalization trends of wine markets. Additionally, political instability and weak economic conditions in the regions considered to be the centre of grapevine domestication and diversity have limited and even threatened both cultivation of traditional varieties and the conservation and research of genetic resources.

Current state of knowledge

During the past 30 years, a number of genetic resources conservation activities have been conducted in the grapevine cultivating countries, mainly through national (public) agricultural research institutions. Collecting of native varieties in the countries of the Caucasus already started in the 1930s. As a result, a significant, if not complete, number of local varieties has been collected and conserved in field collections. Beyond the important role of these germplasm collections in conserving biodiversity, research towards their characterization and evaluation has been carried out. The research activities aim at evaluating the collections as sources of variation to be introduced in commercial viticulture as well as identifying sources of genes useful for grapevine breeding. However, research efforts that would facilitate the use of existing collections have not been as frequent as the conservation activities. Two main constraints cause this imbalance: the lengthy time periods required for field experiments and the high set-up and running costs of modern genetic research tools. Grapevine documentation systems at pan-European level were developed, in large part, through the collaborative work facilitated by the European Cooperative Programme for Plant Genetic Resources (ECPGR). Country representatives nominated as members of the Vitis Working Group have focused on the maintenance and development of the publicly available European Vitis Database and the harmonization and promotion of commonly agreed information standards. An international project, financially supported by the Government of Luxembourg and coordinated by Bioversity International during the years 2003-2008 allowed partners to describe and better conserve germplasm collections in the Caucasus and Northern Black Sea region (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Russian Federation and Ukraine). Due to economic and political difficulties, the germplasm collections of the countries involved in the project were at risk. Through the project, most of the germplasm of the region has been safely conserved in new field collections. In accordance with the long history of grapevine cultivation and based on experimental data, the local germplasm in the Caucasus represents a very unique and rich source of genetic variation, as demonstrated by the results of previous research. In fact, previous research demonstrated very high levels of genetic diversity found in the Caucasus germplasm. It includes a large number of local varieties with diverse colour of skin, ample phenological timing, variability for different morphological characters and technological aptitudes. All these traits are essential for the development of sustainable viticulture. According to anthocyanin profiling, most of the varieties have high oenological values, which are associated with quality of wine. DNA markers made evident high genetic variation, which is clearly differentiated and structured by geographic sub-regions. The genetic structures are different from the germplasm types found in other European countries. Knowledge about the levels, patterns and processes maintaining genetic diversity and correlations (genetic associations) with important phenotypic traits, provides the basis for designing strategies that ensure better conservation and promotes sustainable use of grapevine genetic resources. Research on grapevine genetics is progressing rapidly. The importance of extending the use of modern molecular-level tools and techniques to gene discovery in existing germplasm collections has been highlighted in a number of national, European and international research programmes. The full genome sequence has been published and can be used to draw information on genes of interest; DNA chips with thousands of single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) are in development and several teams are working to characterize target genes. These efforts demonstrate that grapevine diversity available in western Europe misses important genetic resources from the area of its domestication, i.e. south-eastern Europe and particularly the Caucasus.

Reasons for the Action

There is a strong need to bring together partners conducting modern genetic research with all the innovation that cutting edge technology entails, and the biological resources with the highest potential for Europe’s viticulture and wine making. Due to the high costs of the technologies, a collaborative network among institutions involved in conservation and evaluation of grapevine germplasm resources, and modern research, is essential. A networking approach will allow developing multidisciplinary synergies to ensure a better interpretation of the patterns of genetic variation; development of strategies; transfer of technologies and capacity building. In order to adequately and accurately describe the patterns of variation, it is essential that the same methodologies are developed and applied along the grapevine migration route from the Caucasus and Asia Minor to Europe. Researchers from eastern and western Europe, having different capacities and approaches to grapevine genetic research, and currently developing works in their respective institutes, will address specific parts of these issues. They recognize the need to collaborate and share their experiences, knowledge and materials in order to take maximum advantage of modern research technologies for studying the largest and most valuable set of genetic resources. Strategies and methodologies will be developed for research, characterization and mobilization of endangered resources. This will lead to preservation of grapevine biodiversity and have a lasting impact on grapevine genetics research.

Complementarity with other research programmes

In the implementation framework of the European Council Regulation EC 870/2004 on genetic resources in agriculture (Directorate-General for Agriculture), there is an on-going project on grapevine, entitled GrapeGene06 (2007-2010). The objectives of the project are different from the Action in that they principally aim at completing an inventory and description for ampelographic and oenological characters of the existing grapevine genetic resources in Europe. Action does not address exploration and mobilization of resources intended for research. The Action will, however, build upon the data collated through GrapeGene06. It is also intended that one of the first workshops organized under the Action would be held together with the final meeting of GrapeGene06. COST Action 858 entitled “Viticulture: Biotic and Abiotic Stress - Grapevine Defence Mechanism and Grape Development” represents a collaborative effort on grapevine that this proposal will complement. In the Action, new varieties of tested germplasm from the Caucasus will be more resistant to stress or diseases, interesting berry development and ripening patterns will be described and the number of described varieties in the European Vitis database will be enlarged. These outcomes will provide specific synergies with the Action 858. Complementary linkages are also envisaged with COST 863 (Euroberry) on phenotype characterization methodologies and with COST 871 (Cryoplanet) on cryoconservation technologies and protocols. To date, there exists no European network that would ensure a sustainable research and conservation process for grapevine genetic resources. The ECPGR Vitis Working Group, which focuses on applied documentation and the GrapeGene06 project, which aims at European Council policy implementation are important initiatives but they address partial and specific issues. The proposers of this COST Action are convinced that such a network is essential and very timely to bring together all the different actors and establish a lasting collaboration for grapevine diversity exploration and mobilization with highly promising advanced research tools. The COST Action will likely provide a very suitable platform for preparing and formulating a medium or large collaborative project, or a network of excellence for submission to an EU Research Framework Programme call.