José Vouillamoz – The Enlightening Science Of The Biologist Returning Home

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Text: Sébastien M. Ladermann Photo: Sedrik Nemeth
Dissecting the DNA of grape varieties to better understand their origin is the passion of a scientist who is passionate about making discoveries and getting to the truth. Even if it means shaking up a few well-established ancestral certitudes in the process.

Like many other age-old activities solidly rooted in their terroir, viticulture jealously cultivated its own beliefs for a long time. Certain received ideas were perpetuated from generation to generation, conferring on them a degree of truth verging on the sacred. Changing anything was considered sacrilege, and anyone who dared to challenge the status quo risked was sent sharply on their way – after being called all the names under the sun.

It wasn't that long ago, and José Vouillamoz, now well into his forties, was well aware of the prevailing mood. It is difficult to see him as such an iconoclast, a rebel against unfounded and mindless arguments. With a cheeky smile, he clearly has a mischievous side – but there's nothing to indicate his devilish spirit. And yet, with his curiosity and his science, he has set himself the quest of discovering the truth – as indisputable as it is disturbing in some peoples' eyes – about the origin of Valais grape varieties in particular.

Born in Saillon to a family that did not own a vineyard, he showed an interest in wine from his teenage years, recommending the produce of certain winegrowers to his father. "In the mid-1980s, the people of Valais believed the wine from their canton to be the best in the world. Yet it seemed to me – without really knowing much about it – that the quality was not consistent. Some wines were much better than others. The cries of "there's none like us" seemed a bit suspicious to me. I had to go and look elsewhere to get a better understanding," he now confesses.

Wine growing does not stop at the borders

A few years later, during his studies in biology at the University of Lausanne, he decided to spend his meagre savings exploring the "wine" shelves of the surrounding supermarkets. With a guide from the famous expert Hugh Johnson in his pocket, he began seeking wines that were foreign to his native region. "To tell the truth, I didn't understand a thing. It all seemed so complicated! Back then my quest was restricted to 2-3 star bottles that cost no more than 10 francs." As he tasted his palate became finer, his knowledge increased and some of the received wisdom from inherited dogmas went out the window. In terms of quality, the wine-growing map certainly did not stop at the borders of his own canton!

By the end of his studies, José Vouillamoz had two kinds of credentials: his academic studies in biology and a more experimental approach with regard to wine. That was when the idea took shape of combining his theoretical knowledge with his growing passion: why not do a post-doc at Davis, California, under the guidance of Carole Meredith? Famous for having reconstructed the origins of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, the professor had become a pioneer in DNA analysis. And as no work had yet been done on the Valais varieties, the project of José Vouillamoz drew the attention of the Swiss National Science Foundation, who gave him a grant.

This was the start of a long story, in the early 2000s, for this keen researcher into wine who was curious about its origins. The analysis of the genetic heritage of indigenous grape varieties – or those that were thought to be indigenous in the Valais region at the time – revealed a host of surprises, incomprehension and even exasperation for some. Yet for José Vouillamoz, his one-year stay in America only served to confirm his interest in carrying out research in a field that was immense, fascinating and still largely unexplored.

He couldn't resist the call to embark on the discovery of the global ampelographic heritage. Of course, it was a gigantic task, well beyond the capacity of the scientist who had returned home to his country in the mean time. "Imagine that in the beginning, there was a completely wild botanical species, Vitis vinifera, present on the earth for several million years and still found today in Portugal and Tajikistan. It was only very "recently" that it was domesticated by mankind, in around 8000 BC in the south-east of Anatolia, in all likelihood. Knowing that each seed has the genetic potential to yield a new variety, the research field is infinite over an infinite period," explained the specialist.

This was when his contacts in California in particular allowed him, with a little bit of luck, to actually launch this crazy project: creating an inventory of all the varieties in the world used to produce commercially sold wine. After four years of intense research, the book entitled Wine Grapes was finally published in 2012. Written by the trio of Vouillamoz, Robinson and Harding, the work details no less than 1,368 varieties and has become an unrivalled global reference point ever since its publication.

The book "Wine Grapes" an important step

Useful for specialists, Wine Grapes above all reveals the importance of the ampelographic heritage represented by "forgotten" varieties to everyone, particularly in Switzerland. More prone to illness, less productive or originally producing more bitter grapes, they paid the price of a growing lack of interest. Until some of them disappeared completely with the arrival of phylloxera. "Only serious research, substantiated by irrefutable proof, could lead to real collective awareness. A great ampelographic wealth was still accessible, it just had to be revealed to stem the tide – even a little – of uniformisation of cultivated varieties. The work contributed to changing mentalities and in some cases even helped relaunch ancient varieties," he says, not without pride.

A great satisfaction for someone who, as a boy, dreamed of being an astronomer. The names of his stars are Completer – his favourite Swiss variety – Durize, Cornalin, Lafnetscha and Bondola. And in the future they will make the eyes of winegrowers and wine makers shine, as they realise the interest of highlighting products that are often unique and sought after by many wine lovers for their authenticity and flavour.