There are over 5 000 varieties of wine grapevines.

Identifying and naming grapevines

Identifying grapevines is a complex science, traditionally based on ampelography, a technique that examines grapevines’ physical characteristics such as leaf shape. In late 2008, a visiting ampelography expert from France questioned whether some Albarino plantings in Australia, were indeed Albarino. Using DNA technology, CSIRO discovered that the vine identified as Albarino in its collection, to which growers had been given access through the Australian Vine Improvement Association Inc, was in fact Savagnin Blanc.

  • 20 April 2009 | Updated 14 October 2011

Grapevine identities

Humans have been developing grapevine varieties over many centuries. It is estimated that about 5 000 different varieties of wine grapes exist, but there are more than 20 000 different names used to describe them across various wine growing countries, so the true identity may not always be clear.

Ampelography is the science used to identify grapevine varieties. It has traditionally been based on the observation of physical characteristics of the vines, including leaf shape, bunch shape, berry colour, pips and shoot tips to name a few.

Sometimes, these characters vary according to where the vines are grown, and they can also be influenced by the presence of pathogens, such as viruses, in the vines.

To help address this issue, CSIRO developed a DNA profiling technique to better identify grapevine varieties.

While CSIRO’s DNA test can potentially provide greater certainty, it relies on agreed international standards against which individual DNA profiles can be compared. With the large range of wine grape varieties and even larger number of names to describe them, there is still more research to be done in this area.

CSIRO’s grapevine collection

CSIRO established a grapevine collection at its Merbein site in Victoria in the 1960s that has become the largest collection of grapevine varieties in Australia. CSIRO uses the collection for its breeding research, which aims to develop new grapevine varieties suited to Australian conditions and provide the Australian wine industry with uniquely Australian varieties.

CSIRO often receives requests from wine grape growers for material from its collection, and makes grapevine cuttings available to the Australian wine industry through the Australian Vine Improvement Association Inc (AVIA), but only after testing shows any introduced vines are free of specific diseases.

Identifying Albarino in CSIRO’s collection

In 1989, CSIRO imported a grapevine variety from the Spanish National Grapevine Collection. The variety was labelled as Albarino and CSIRO has maintained it as that ever since. DNA testing to verify the identity of this variety was not carried out at the time as the technology had not yet been developed.

In late 2008, CSIRO became aware of concerns about the identity of this variety after a visiting ampelography expert from France questioned whether some plantings in Australia were indeed Albarino. CSIRO immediately began an investigation using its DNA profiling technology to verify the identity of the grapevine.

During CSIRO’s investigation, it was apparent that confusion relating to the naming of the variety Albarino extends beyond Australia, with the international scientific literature proposing the confusion may have occurred when plant material labelled as Albarino, but was actually Savagnin Blanc, was sent from the grapevine’s traditional growing area in north-western Spain, to the Spanish National Grapevine Collection.

If this is the case, plant material incorrectly labelled as Albarino may have been sent to other national and international collections, leading to confusion about the grapevine’s identity.

CSIRO obtained DNA samples, extracted from plants of Albarino and Savagnin Blanc of the El Encín Spanish National Grapevine Collection, to conduct its DNA profiling test.  When the DNA profiles of the new grapevine samples of Albarino were compared to the sample in CSIRO’s collection, it was clear they were genetically different.

Further testing showed the DNA samples from the vine in the CSIRO collection matched those from another variety Savagnin Blanc, which appears to be closely related to the variety Traminer.

While the origin of the mistaken identity of Albarino may never be known, it is clear there is still much work to be done internationally to minimise confusion around grapevine identification. 

Working with the Australian wine industry

CSIRO developed its DNA test because of recognised difficulties in accurately identifying wine grape varieties.  CSIRO has made its DNA profiling tools available to the wine industry.

After using DNA profiling to uncover the true identity of the ‘Albarino’ vines in its collection, CSIRO has also made the DNA profiles of Albarino and Savagnin Blanc, recently sourced from Spain, available. Growers can now test their Albarino vines through Provisor Pty Ltd, and clarify if they are in fact Savagnin Blanc or Albarino.

Read more about CSIRO Plant Industry.