Francesca Fort: "Juan Jesús Méndez (Viñátigo) was the first winemaker who began the study of Canaria

Francesca Fort, coordinator of the Vine Biology area of ​​the Oenological Technology research group at the Rovira i Virgili University (Tarragona) and an expert in the DNA of Canarian grapes, recognized the work of Juan Jesús Méndez, director of Bodegas Viñátigo, in an extensive interview with Pella Gofio magazine during his recent visit to the island of La Palma.

We reproduce in full the first part of this extensive interview conducted by Yuri Millares for Pella Gofio and that the next table will continue with its second part.

First delivery of the long and intense interview that this geneticist, professor of the Faculty of Enology of the Rovira i Virgili University of Tarragona (URV) and coordinator of the Biology of the Vine area of ​​the research group in Oenological Technology of the same University, has maintained with the director of PELLAGOFIO, to talk about his research on the grapes of the Canary Islands, the results of which never cease to amaze her and, she advances, there will be more "surprise boxes".

PG –In the Canary Islands, an extraordinary interest in knowing the identity and origin of the grapes that we have here has spread in recent years. In all the islands there has been a longing to know what we have, where they came from. What does the Rovira i Virgili University have to make it the destination of all the exhibitions that seek to find out all these questions?

FF - A complex question. I think it is, a bit, the result of chance. Professor Fernando Zamora meets here, in one of his talks, the winemaker Juan Jesús Méndez, they establish a relationship and from there Juan Jesús sends about 80 samples from the Canary Islands and about 14 from Madeira to be analyzed without funding. That is, paying the URV, but at that historical moment, Fernando thought it would be something very interesting. And here I appear. Fernando has the profile of a specialist in polyphenols, and I was working with molecular markers, getting (we could say) the identity card [of the grapes]. With the first results I say: this is not possible, we have made a mistake in something! and the samples are repeated. From here, the genetic profiles of this first batch are obtained and we speak with Juan Jesús to explain the results. Word of mouth begins and they call from Lanzarote, which was the first island on which we did prospecting.

"Professor Fernando Zamora meets here, in one of his talks, the winemaker Juan Jesús Méndez , they establish a relationship and from there Juan Jesús sends about 80 samples from the Canary Islands and about 14 from Madeira to be analyzed without funding"

PG – Why? What does DNA reveal? FF-Because the analyzes showed unusual results. The DNA revealed extraordinarily different genetic profiles compared to what we then had in our database (yet to be presented to the public), which currently has more than 1,000 entries or accessions from 24 countries around the world, and houses between 700 and 800 unique genetic profiles, counting mutations. I estimate that, at this point, the Canary Islands contribute around 50% of the accessions (individuals) or perhaps more. We are talking about a specialized database and, I have to specify, it exclusively contains genetic profiles obtained from a technique known as SSRs (Simple Sequence Repeats) or microsatellites [DNA sequences]. This technique is the most used at the moment together with another known as SNPs (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms),

PG - You are the ones in Spain who have specialized the most, then. FF – We'd like to… but no! There are other groups that work with this same technique, although, at the moment, our research group is the one that has the most extensive database in the Peninsula for a single institution. Also, having a large number of foreign genetic profiles, we can be very categorical when we state that a sample or group of samples is unique since we have where to directly compare.

PG –The first who knocked on your door, then, was Juan Jesús. What year was it? FF –Yes. This was done between 2006 and 2008.

PG –Has appointed Lanzarote. The most famous of the grapes in the Canary Islands is Malvasía. I remember that Juan Jesús told me in an interview, I suppose from the results that you gave him, that there were, I think, 21 different varieties of malvasia on the island… Is that correct?

FF –Yes… but no. When samples from a survey reach us, they arrive with a specific name, which is the one provided by the winegrower. In 2008 when Juan JesúsHe sent us the first Canarian samples, it is true that we had 22 individuals entered with the name of "malvasía" alone, or with something else behind (malvasía nera de Basilicata, for example), whether peninsular or foreign ... But this does not mean that all of them are malvasias. At this time and from this Canarian collection, there are four samples from Lanzarote: three turned out to be volcanic malvasia (coinciding with the entry name) and one aromatic (which entered with the name "malvasía"). From Tenerife we ​​received three samples: an entry as "gual" which turned out to be a fine malvasia, the second an entry as "malaga" which was a volcanic malvasia and the last a pink one which was the aromatic pink malvasia, in addition to the malvasias from Madeira and Malvasia from La Palma.

“There is variability within varieties (that is, intra-variety) and also between varieties (inter-variety). And you own everything and at all levels. As published in the books of the engineer Jorge Zerolo (2006) and Dr. Rodríguez-Torres(2018), there are approximately 19 varieties, which are local to the Canary Islands, which are theirs, from the Canary Islands ...! and that they do not exist anywhere else in the world. A negramoll (or mulatto, for example) is a gray mollar, an Andalusian variety that has grown here, and that over the years, as it adapts to the Canarian edaphoclimatic conditions (that is, to the Canarian soil and climate), it incorporates changes in its DNA (it is mutating). Perhaps at present there is a new variety very close to the Canarian variety mollar and that it is Canarian… all this is the result of this adaptive evolution. We are seeing it prospect after prospect. The mollar cano cultivar will always be Andalusian, but this new variety adapted to your archipelago is already Canarian. This is great wealth, this is your wealth!

PG –There are more, then.

FF –Of course. But let's not talk about varieties. Let's talk about unique genetic profiles, including mutations. These also contribute to biodiversity and over time will end up giving new varieties and on every island there are!

PG –We have volcanic malvasia in Lanzarote and we have aromatic malvasia in La Palma and Tenerife.

FF –In the group of malvasías there is both the volcanic one, the one from La Palma or the one from Tenerife.

PG - Are they very different?

FF - Let's see, this variability that you have, both intervarietal and intravarietal, is due to 500 years of accumulated mutations. Some vines arrive, they are brought by some Jesuit friars as described by Macías Hernández(professor at the ULPGC), who were the first to introduce a Mallorcan variety known by the name fogoneu for the Eucharistic celebration (and which currently exists in the Balearic Islands). From here other friars come and there are different migrations and each one brings the varieties of their land. But we are 500 years behind and they have to adapt here. How is this adaptation achieved? Speaking in ecological terms, with the individuals who have more capacity to adapt, who are the ones who survive and create new populations. This new population is already a population that is adapted, and so on. It is natural selection…. But apart from this, there is a component of crosses, what is called hybridizations. The volcanic malvasia is the subsidiary, that is, the son of a cross between aromatic malvasia and marmajuelo.

PG –And the marmajuelo from Lanzarote is marmajuelo or is it Diego? Because there is no marmajuelo in Lanzarote, right?

FF –I have received some samples from Diego de Lanzarote, yes, both from the collection sent by Juan Jesús and from the prospecting of Lanzarote. The Diego varietal I think I remember is a common Andalusian vijiriega. Therefore, they are two different varieties, what happens is that you use here to name the common vijiriega the synonymous word or the synonym "diego". Regarding whether there is marmajuelo in Lanzarote (which is different from the Diego varietal), I think there is, very little, but there is.

“All of this, as you can see, generates a lot of confusion. It is necessary to put order in the names, in addition to relating them to a correct genetic profile. In the surveys of Lanzarote, La Gomera, El Hierro and, now, in Fuerteventura, one of the purposes is this, to put order to correctly identify and measure the variability that you have. For this, we use the technique of microsatellites or SSRs (as I mentioned before). Each microsatellite has two alleles, that is, it results in two numbers, two digits. In our research group, we use 20 SSRs. Then we have to compare 40 numbers with the database to measure variations and to identify an individual. As we have been demonstrating in the talks, you have a lot of polymorphism (variability), which makes you different. Instead,

“The Canary Islands are a center for the creation of new varieties, which is known as a center of biodiversity. For this to happen, three factors come into play: there is a component that is adaptive, there is another component that is hybridization (that is, crosses, like the one I just described), and then there is human selection. Your ancestors selected what they liked the most because it was easier to grow, what was organoleptically more palatable, etc. The compendium of these three factors results in the emergence of varieties that the Canary Islands can offer to the world.

“It's what I always tell you, you are now in a position to respond to two problems that the world community has. Phylloxera was the great debacle of the 19th century; In the 20th century, there is the homogenization of wines, in the 80s and 90s whoever did not have and vinified a Cabernet Sauvignon perished that it had no market. This has affected biodiversity because focusing almost all wine production on 16 varieties is brutal; and in the 21st century we have climate change. So, currently, there are two unsolved problems, one continues to be the homogenization of wines, but, in addition, we must add climate change.

“You [in the Canary Islands] have an answer for both. First, because they are a current biodiversity centre. Its vines express everything: intervarietal variability and intravarietal variability. This makes them very strong when it comes to presenting very different vines to the world community not only genetically, but also organoleptically. They can offer new products that give the consumer new sensations. Regarding climate change, the varietals that you have (especially the mutants) can help mitigate its effects, especially the specimens from the islands and drier areas.

PG –The first grape that you said arrived in the Canary Islands with the Jesuit friars, the fogoneu, what came from there?

FF –With the result of the first Canarian collection that arrived in Tarragona, seen and analyzed, you say… I would love to do a thorough exploration of the archipelago! And I would love to find the varietal fogoneu, if it survives! We have not done prospecting in Gran Canaria and this is a pending issue. If a European project that the University of La Laguna is leading were to go ahead, it would be one of the great unknowns that could be resolved. At the moment, we have no indications in the Canary Islands of anything that comes close to the varietal fogoneu ...

“And the other great unknown and, at the same time, an illusion for me, is to see what happens on La Palma. Here I suspect that biodiversity will be the great potential of this island. It is possibly on par with the biodiversity found on El Hierro, which was spectacular. From the results that we have worked on (always in broad strokes), I would qualify that the vines that can provide the best solution to climate change may be those of Lanzarote, due to the rainfall it has and the adaptation of these individuals. Now we are prospecting Fuerteventura and the same. But the uniqueness in genomes is in La Gomera with its population of vines led by its foreign [grape]. I think Tenerife can be a great box of surprises. I await the confluence of "a little of everything", uniqueness and biodiversity. The most curious and very important thing is that, on each island, we have found a score of unknown individuals who, or have already separated from a certain variety, or are individuals absolutely distant from everything known. And all this is to be catalogued!

You can read here the original article by Yuri Millares in Pella Gofio magazine.

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