Grapes and the Garden: The Science, Production, and Appreciation of Wine

Henry Shaw and Dr. George Engelmann, two key figures in the history of the Missouri Botanical Garden, both had strong interests in grape vines and wine making, influencing the science, production, and appreciation of vitis locally, nationally, and internationally.

Missouri Botanical Garden founder Henry Shaw had a passionate interest in the history and study of wine. In his 1884 self-published work The Vine and Civilisation [sic], Shaw outlines how wine influenced global civilization from the ancient world to his time and gives great detail on grape-growing regions and wine production around the world. At the time of his death he had over 3,000 bottles from the finest vineyards in France and Germany.

A surviving bottle of sherry, bearing Henry Shaw’s Tower Grove label, that is now stored at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis.

“He who has a good cellar well filled cannot too soon make himself acquainted with its management, and with the history of that beverage which, used in due moderation, may be reckoned among the most precious gifts of heaven to the temperate and rational man.”

-Henry Shaw, The Vine and Civilisation

Dr. George Engelmann was a botanist and physician in St. Louis during the 19th century. Engelmann was keenly interested in all new plants being discovered by scientists in the United States and Mexico, assembling a large private herbarium now located at the Garden. He worked closely with Isidor Bush, owner of the largest St. Louis nursery at the time, to publish the Illustrated descriptive catalogue of American grape-vines (1875). The catalog was later translated to French and became the definitive work delineating North American Vitis species.

Starting from the 1870s, an insect named phylloxera began destroying the European wine industry. Using Engelmann’s herbarium specimens, Engelmann and Missouri entomologist Charles V. Riley determined that the phylloxera insect was native to North America and that American grape species were resistant to the pest. Engelmann, along with Bush and two other Missouri horticulturalists, George Husmann and Hermann Jaeger, helped develop and organize the shipment of millions of phylloxera-resistant American grapevines to France, where they were used as hardy root stocks to which European vines were grafted. The defeat of the phylloxera problem was the first triumph of modern biology over an immense economic disaster, and Missouri scientists Engelmann, Riley, Bush, Husmann, and Jaeger played a key role in the solution. As phylloxera has become pandemic, grapes all over the viticultural world are now grafted on to the resistant root stock, all of which have North American origins.

Missouri grapevines that resist pathogen and climatic stress are used as rootstocks in global grape cultivation.

Vitis species in Missouri and surrounding areas have evolved in response to challenging climates and pests over the course of thousands of years of natural selection. As a result, these species play an important role in the global grape industry by providing genetic resources that can withstand extreme climates and attacks by insects and pathogens. Starting with the phylloxera crisis in the mid 1800s, cultivated grapevines consist of two genetically distinct entities that are grafted together. Berries used for eating and making wine come primarily from the European species, V. vinifera, which forms the top half of the plant, named the scion. This is grafted to a rootstock, a distinct species that is hardier and more disease resistant than the European grape. Two native Missouri Vitis species, the river grape (V. riparia) and the rock grape (V. rupestris) are important sources of rootstocks for the global grape industry.

A Missouri-wide effort to advance grape research in the state is gaining momentum and includes scientists working at the Danforth Plant Science Center, Missouri Botanical Garden, Missouri State University, Saint Louis University, the University of Missouri, and Washington University, as well as the United States Department of Agriculture- Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS). Recently, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the USDA-ARS, and Saint Louis University collaborated to establish an experimental vineyard in the William T. Kemper Center for Home Gardening. The research vineyard included multiple individuals of the river grape and the rock grape. Scientists monitored gene expression and nutrient uptake with the goal of comparing how closely related Vitis species respond to stressful environmental conditions. These data will be used to help develop improved rootstocks for grape growers. A new grape experiment is expected to be installed in the near future, continuing the Garden’s long legacy exploring the science behind one of our most beloved beverages. Cheers!


Text by Doug Holland, Dr. Allison Miller, and Dr. Wendy Applequist
Featured image by Eric Frazier, Chaumette Vineyards & Winery

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