The Agricultural Institute of San Michele all'Adige believes that the breakthrough could create a foundation for improving quality traits of currently cultivated grapevines and establish new varieties that are more capable of adapting to the soil and weather conditions of specific wine-growing regions.
The breakthrough comes at a critical time for Europe's wine industry. The EC is expected to unveil proposals for full-scale reform of the common wine market later this year in an attempt to revamp what has become an ailing sector. P
According to a forecast study by UK consultancy IWSR, France will remain the leading exporter of still light wine, but its exports will decrease by 3.62 per cent by 2008. Italy will experience a 37.6 per cent loss of exports during the same period as wine from Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Portugal become more appealing.
The point however is that world wine retail sales are expected to increase over the next decade, with most of the growth occurring for wine selling at more than 5 per bottle. This will represent a quarter of consumption in 2008, according to IWSR.
Improving the quality of wine, therefore, is one of the key ways that European wine makers can reassert their dominance.
The grapevine is the first fruit plant and the second crop plant, after rice, to have its genome sequenced. The team, from the Agricultural Institute of San Michele all'Adige deciphered the grapevine genome using as a model the Pinot Noir vine, one of the world's most important cultivars.
The successful venture also involved scientists from the American firm, Myriad Genetics.
Initial backing for the project was provided by the Fondazione della Cassa di Risparmio di Trento e Rovereto. The next step was made possible by specific funding from the Trento Autonomous Provincial Council, which led to the production in 2004 of the first 'Physical map of the grapevine' and was subsequently employed to reconstruct the 19 grapevine chromosomes.
The next step was obvious: deciphering the entire grapevine genome.
The project has so far sequenced five genome equivalents for a total of two and a half billion nucleotides, which comprise 99 per cent of the plant's genes, creating a first draft of the grapevine DNA sequence that contains approximately 500 million nucleotides.
The current project is scheduled to end in a few months' time with the completion of the sequencing and assembly of the grapevine genome, which will then be published.
Increased knowledge of the biological mechanisms of the grapevine will allow targeted approaches to reduce the number and impact of parasites, which could enable a sustainable, environmentally-sound, farming policy.