People harvesting grapes in Portopalo, in Sicily, in September 2009.
People harvesting grapes in Portopalo, in Sicily, in September 2009.
Laura Anello

PALERMO — It’s a genetic test, but no body parts or blood are being analyzed — it’s bottles of wine instead.

A team of researchers have developed a system they say will revolutionize the concept of traceability used in proving the origins of agricultural products: in this case, the vine, the quality of yeast used in the fermentation of the must (pulp) in Malvasia, Muscat and Nero d’Avola grapes, among others.

Wandering around the head office of the Bioscience Institute in Palermo — which has spearheaded the project together with a company called Bionat — it seems like some of the food scandals that recently made the rounds might find their final resting place here.

Tubes, distillation apparatuses and white coats have taken over the seven Sicilian winemakers that have agreed to take part in the genetic certifying process for their vintages. With just a few drops, the results are ready in 30 minutes.

This research, funded by the Rural Development Plan for the Sicilian Region, has revolutionized the current approach (DOC, DOP, IGT) which monitors the production process and leaves too much room for discretion to those who make the wine.

Guido Spoto, project manager for Bionat Italy, explains that the state-of-the-art method traces its roots in a process patented years ago by a group of Sicilian researchers for the rapid diagnosis of Celiac disease. "From that, various branches of research were born, one of which was dedicated to the genetic characterization of food products in order to ascertain the traceability and identify if something had been counterfeit or altered in any way," Spoto explains.

Putting it simply, the laboratory analysts identify the genetic sequences of the grape varieties that the wine was made from. These sequences are then compared with the data specified on the bottles label. If one tests positive then the bottle gets a dot.

Spoto says the next goal is to provide ID kits and reading machines to the Carabinieri police's Department of Health to be able to identify brands that are misrepresenting the origins of their products.

Key to the project is the Bioscience and Bioresources of the National Research Council (CNR), which for years hunted plants considered disappeared through ancient texts and research on fields worthy of Indiana Jones.

"Today, wine is history, it’s culture, it’s the area’s heritage," says Francesco Carimi, project manager for the CNR. "This (method) is crucial for attributing definitive identity. Our research team interviewed elderly farmers, scrambling to pick up wild vines from ancient history, and comparing descriptions of medieval Latin texts to identify the plants. It was hard work, but it was fascinating."

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