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Sauvignon Blanc Grapevine Improvement Programme FAQs

How are you producing new Sauvignon Blanc variants in 7 years?

Traditional grapevine breeding requires multiple generations of crossing to recover traits associated with premium quality wine after a new trait is introduced. That process can take two to three decades, and the resulting plants are a different variety from the parent plants.

In the current programme, new vines will be produced by accelerating a natural system plants have that triggers new diversification in response to environmental stress. Since this doesn’t involve crossings with other vines, the plants are still Sauvignon Blanc, and the new variants are fully formed at the first generation.

Using latest-generation DNA sequencing technology, we can study the rates at which the vines change in response to stress, and exactly where in the DNA these changes have occurred, even before the plants are mature enough to express the new traits. Plants with promising new traits will be observed in vineyard trials towards the end of the 7-year programme.

Has this been tested? What’s the science behind it?

Although growing vines from cuttings usually result in plants that are genetically identical, portions of the DNA of plants (and animals) can sometimes spontaneously change, altering the way that genes are expressed. Many winegrowers will have seen this in the case of ‘bud sports’ –a vine that looks different to those around it, or even a single branch that suddenly displays a new trait. Research has shown that the underlying ‘jumping genes’ (also known as ‘transposons’) are particularly active in plant cells that are exposed to environmental shock, probably as a way for the plant to adapt its genetics to a change in the environment. This project will use carefully calibrated stress treatments to greatly increase the rate at which this natural genetic change occurs, and in doing so produce a collection of vines that are each subtly different.

New Zealand researchers have already tested this research in pilot studies with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Why Sauvignon Blanc? What about the other varietals grown in New Zealand?

At the moment, New Zealand research into the use of grapevine genetic diversity is mostly focused on Pinot Noir. This project will scale up this work and adapt it to Sauvignon Blanc, which accounts for 85% of our export value, as the low diversity is a pronounced risk to our industry. Additionally, grapevines have about 30,000 genes and we only understand the function of about 10% of them. What we learn about Sauvignon Blanc can be further applied to other varietals that share these genes, speeding up future improvements.

Is this programme using or suggesting GMO approaches?

No. The programme has been specifically designed to make use of the grapevine’s natural ability to increase its own diversity. No foreign introduction of DNA is involved, so the vines will be GMO-free.

Why can’t we use traditional breeding?

Many overseas wine-producing countries have been breeding grapevines for decades, crossing species and varieties to create disease resistant plants that make high-quality wine. That results in new varieties, which in the case of Old World producers, can be incorporated into regional classifications. Consumers of New Zealand wine often use varietal identity as an indicator of quality, so we are pursuing an approach to select improved traits within our premium varieties.

What traits are you breeding for?

Initially, the focus is on selecting vines with improvements in fungal pathogen resistance, drought tolerance, frost resistance, temperature adaptations, and flavour and aroma compounds in the berries. Like evolution, the current approach depends on selecting improvements from a large pool of new diversity. This gives us the opportunity to keep selecting new traits from the same gene pool. It also means we have a ‘library’ of adaptations to consider if other threats arrive.

Why now?

“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”

The lack of genetic diversity in our vineyards is a risk that’s been identified by experts again and again. The wrong pest or disease could devastate our monoculture. Over the next two to three decades, many Sauvignon Blanc growers will be looking to re-plant their vineyards. This project aims to produce local vines that are specifically suited to the challenges and opportunities on the near horizon for our winegrowing regions and export markets. New Zealand Wine has modelled long-term climate change implications across New Zealand to 2040 and 2090. Continuing to produce quality wines under future conditions will depend on the availability of vines suited to those conditions.

Can’t you import new Sauvignon Blanc clones?

The only way to select the best vines for New Zealand is based on how they perform when they are grown here. Strict biosecurity controls mean that it is not possible to import collections of diversity, all of which have been produced for overseas conditions, for local selection. Instead, our plan is to start with the vines that already perform so well in New Zealand and develop new selections from these. The result of this programme will be the first new variants selected in New Zealand, specifically for the New Zealand industry.

How long will it take before growers can buy new vines?

By the end of the 7-year project, the aim is to have identified new variants that offer advantages over the current material available to growers, as demonstrated in field trials. We will be working with contributing members, including the NZ Viticulture Nursery Association (ViNA), to ensure that the new variants are compatible with current propagation and grafting systems so that they can then be bulked up and made available for commercial plantings.

Where can I find the public report summaries?

The public report summaries are available on our website here.

How can I get involved?

Involvement is open to all members of the NZ wine industry. Grantors contribute their time, cash funding and/or in-kind support. To find out how you can be involved in the project email Darrell Lizamore at