When wine grapes are medicine, forgotten varieties deserve a second look

Autocthonous, adj. – Indigenous to a particular environment, habitat, or geographical area.

Italy, like other places that have vineyards substantially older than their nationhoods, mothers a gobsmacking number of unique, local, autocthonous grape varieties known only to village natives and sleep-deprived MW students obliged to memorize them all. At the risk of offending, most aren’t famous for good reason. International grape varieties (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, riesling, and the like) become international in part because they grow well in diverse locales, in part because of accidents of history, but in part because they tend to make darn good wine. Even as the recent fashion for weird, little-known, and hard-to-get wines means that hyper-local varieties are hearing their names uttered in distant lands (like London and San Francisco wine bars), they’re a niche interest at best.

Nevertheless, lots of scientific work has recently been going into documenting these autocthonous grape varieties. A cynical observer might attribute that to the necessary technology being newly cheap and still trendy, a less cynical one to our renewed appreciation for biodiversity. We could even end up rediscovering lost talent and invigorating new wine styles, like finding the greatest novel of the 20th century as a manuscript in the bottom drawer of your great-aunt’s writing desk and giving it the publication run it always deserved. While we’re waiting for that to happen, there’s actually a different and you might say nobler motive at work. Biologists are hunting for medically useful compounds, and Frosinone in Latium in Central Italy has become their new Amazon rain forest.

Italian biologists have been scouring their countryside for “local, ancient ecotypes” and, beyond the usual business of documenting whether they’re genetically unique, a recent paper takes the extra steps of measuring their concentrations of antioxidant phenolic compounds and observing their effects against proliferating cancer cells. Having first ranked their 37 autocthonous Frosinone varieties by anti-oxidizing and free radical-fighting capacity, they threw concentrated seed extracts at model cancer cells growing in lab dishes. And some of the cancer cells died or stopped growing!

Now, dead cancer cells floating in dishes are clearly a very, very, very long way from wine grape seed extracts being used as the next cancer-fighting miracle drug. But. Compounds from wine grapes likely will (continue to) be investigated as medications. And no matter whether Zimavacca or one of the numerous unnamed “new genetic profiles” from this study become the trendy new somm-bait, we have good reasons to preserve such things. Analyzing samples from odd nooks about the countryside shouldn’t need economic justification: preserving our cultural-biological history is a good fight. But in the present climate, a little economic justification doesn’t hurt.