Plant 302

Vitis species (Vitaceae)


Vitis is a mainly Northern Hemisphere genus, of approximately 65 species. The climbing, deciduous shrubs have alternate leaves and conical inflorescences of greenish flowers. When pollinated, the flowers develop into fleshy berries known as grapes. Each flower has a two-celled ovary, each of which contains two ovules, so there may be as many as four seeds per fruit. Wild Vitis species usually produce separate male and female plants but, in cultivation, hermaphrodite flowers have been selected.

Fermented into wine, eaten fresh as fruit, or dried to produce sultanas, currants and raisins, Vitis species have been consumed and cultivated for millennia. Grape growing and harvesting was important in the ceremonial life of Ancient Egyptians, and was depicted on tomb murals, with bottled wine provided for the afterlife. Vitis plants, transported to Greece by seafaring Phoenicians around 1000 BCE, thrived in the Mediterranean climate, gradually spreading throughout the Classical World.

Vines, grapes and wine were regarded as gifts from the gods, the physical manifestations of their presence on earth. The Greek god Dionysus presided over the grape harvest, with wine holding great significance in ancient Greek culture. Wine fuelled Bacchanalian festivals of drunken revelry as Vitis cultivation spread throughout the Roman Empire.

In 1996, a pot shard, found in a Neolithic settlement in Northern Iran, was used to infer the presence of wine production. The shard had residues of a calcium salt that occurs naturally in grapes, and Pistacia terebinthus resin, which is used for wine preservation. In China, wine may have been fermented from 7000 BCE, since vessels from the period, containing wine residues, have been discovered in Jiahu.

Vitis is a very long-lived plant. The phrase 'Old Vine', used on labels when wine is produced from older vines, maintains the belief that old plants produce superior wine. The world's oldest known vine is found in Maribor, Slovenia, and is thought to be over 400 years old. The Great Vine at Hampton Court Palace, possibly the largest in cultivation, was planted in 1768 under the direction of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown.

Vitis vinifera is the most common source of cultivars for wine production. It has been grown at Oxford Botanic Garden since 1648. The first keeper of the Garden, Jacob Bobart the Elder, managed to make the popular 'White Frontiniac' vine fruit early by grafting it onto the 'Parsly' vine; the well-rotted contents of New College's 'house of office' his preferred manure.

Further reading

Campbell C 2004. Phylloxera. How wine was saved for the world. HarperCollins.

Harris SA 2015. What have plants ever done for us? Bodleian Library, pp. 57-60.

McGovern PS 2003. Ancient wine: the search for the origins of viniculture. Princeton University Press.

Jamie Todd