Focus on Vitis: the origin of the plant symbol of BESTMEDGRAPE project
The grapevine belongs to the botanical family of the Vitaceae, which comprises a series of woody climbing plants, mainly represented by the genus Vitis with approximately 65 species growing almost exclusively in the northern hemisphere.
Most Vitis species are indigenous to North America and East Asia, where the grapes are sometimes vinified, but the vast majority of wines around the world is made by the only indigenous species from Eurasia: Vitis vinifera, meaning ‘wine-bearing grape’, which has consistently proved its superiority in terms of wine quality and flavour.
Vitis vinifera includes two subspecies: the cultivated form Vitis vinifera subsp. vinifera and the wild form Vitis vinifera subsp. sylvestris, with several morphological differences.
Wild grape is a heliophilous liana that grows in riparian woodlands, from 0 to 1000 metres above sea level; it reached the Mediterranean probably from the Caucasian area and is now distributed from North Africa to Central Europe. The most substantial difference between wild and cultivated forms of V. vinifera is plant sex: wild grapevines have male and female reproductive structures on separate plants, while cultivated forms are mostly hermaphrodite (male and female reproductive organs within the same flower). Hermaphroditism is an important attribute of cultivated grape, which is due to a genetic modification caused by the domestication process; this process induced a significant change in the reproductive biology of the grape that led to ensure the increased fruit production of larger berries with higher sugar content.
This change was probably due also to the simultaneous evolution of birds and mammals: avian, mammalian and reptilian are recognized as dispersers of Vitis, but birds, notably the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris), and presumably its predecessors, appear to have played the most important role in the primary dispersal of Vitis spp. With the precise intent to attract seed dispersers Vitis developed berries with energy-rich sugar and other nutritionally valuable components; birds thus spread its seeds and hence its genes.