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Scientists working in New Zealand have developed 6,000 new genetic strains of Sauvignon Blanc in a bid to reduce the impact of climate change on its flagship grape variety.

The Bragato Research Institute (BRI) in Marlborough has created the plantlets in conjunction with Plant & Food Research as part of a seven-year programme to help New Zealand’s NZ$2bn ($1.25bn) wine industry become more resilient.

The nascent vines are presently in a nursery but will be planted in a research vineyard in spring.

Eventually, the programme hopes to produce 12,000 diverse variants of Sauvignon Blanc, with useful traits like improved yield, resistance to disease, frost tolerance and water use efficiency being prioritised in the cultivation process.

“New Zealand has 26,559 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc vines and due to the way grapes are propagated, the vast majority of these vines are genetically the same,” a statement from the Bragato Research Institute said. “That means that any new pest, disease or environmental change that affects one vine could affect them all.”

Principal scientist Dr Darrell Lizamore insisted the new variants would maintain the desirable characteristics of Sauvignon Blanc.

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“Plants have the natural ability to become more genetically diverse in response to environmental stress, and this knowledge was used to produce a population of vines with unique traits,” he said. “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.”

To understand exactly how each of the 6,000 variants is different, BRI has installed what it claims is the first “high-throughput third-generation sequencer” in New Zealand.

The sequencer generates long-read data which enables researchers to distinguish generic understanding genetic differences among grapevines, as well as measuring the impact a vine’s environment has on its traits.

The Sauvignon Blanc Grapevine Improvement Programme is partly funded by programme partners, who have committed to investing NZ$18.7m over the duration of the project.

Trade body New Zealand Winegrowers has said it will provide up to NZ$6m in levy funds, while the remainder ocomes from the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund, private wine industry members and other in-kind contributors.

Speaking to Just Drinks in March, New Zealand winegrowers expressed hope that the industry could move beyond Sauvignon Blanc to export a wider variety of wines.

Tim Severne, general manager at Rockburn Wines in Central Otago, said Malborough is a “door opener” but consumers, particularly domestically, are opening up to other varietals and regions.

“I love Malborough and the producers – it’s definitely a door opener,” he said. “It’s a conversation starter. But, you know, once you get behind the Sauvignon Blanc, it’s the Pinot Noirs, Pinot Gris, Chardonnays, it’s Grüner Veltliner – all the other quirky varietals and I think people are starting to really starting to open their eyes to them.”