Background: Water deficit has significant effects on grape berry composition resulting in improved wine quality by the enhancement of color, flavors, or aromas. While some pathways or enzymes affected by water deficit have been identified, little is known about the global effects of water deficit on grape berry metabolism.
Results: The effects of long-term, seasonal water deficit on berries of Cabernet Sauvignon, a red-wine grape, and Chardonnay, a white-wine grape were analyzed by integrated transcript and metabolite profiling. Over the course of berry development, the steady-state transcript abundance of approximately 6,000 Unigenes differed significantly between the cultivars and the irrigation treatments. Water deficit most affected the phenylpropanoid, ABA, isoprenoid, carotenoid, amino acid and fatty acid metabolic pathways. Targeted metabolites were profiled to confirm putative changes in specific metabolic pathways. Water deficit activated the expression of numerous transcripts associated with glutamate and proline biosynthesis and some committed steps of the phenylpropanoid pathway that increased anthocyanin concentrations in Cabernet Sauvignon. In Chardonnay, water deficit activated parts of the phenylpropanoid, energy, carotenoid and isoprenoid metabolic pathways that contribute to increased concentrations of antheraxanthin, flavonols and aroma volatiles. Water deficit affected the ABA metabolic pathway in both cultivars. Berry ABA concentrations were highly correlated with 9-cis-epoxycarotenoid dioxygenase (NCED1) transcript abundance, whereas the mRNA expression of other NCED genes and ABA catabolic and glycosylation processes were largely unaffected. Water deficit nearly doubled ABA concentrations within berries of Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas it decreased ABA in Chardonnay at véraison and shortly thereafter.
Conclusion: The metabolic responses of grapes to water deficit varied with the cultivar and fruit pigmentation. Chardonnay berries, which lack any significant anthocyanin content, exhibited increased photoprotection mechanisms under water deficit conditions. Water deficit increased ABA, proline, sugar and anthocyanin concentrations in Cabernet Sauvignon, but not Chardonnay berries, consistent with the hypothesis that ABA enhanced accumulation of these compounds. Water deficit increased the transcript abundance of lipoxygenase and hydroperoxide lyase in fatty metabolism, a pathway known to affect berry and wine aromas. These changes in metabolism have important impacts on berry flavor and quality characteristics. Several of these metabolites are known to contribute to increased human-health benefits.