Late one evening a few years ago, I stumbled across a question in some dark corner of an online wine forum. “Can you name 100 grapes that you’ve tasted?” the user asked the oenophilic interwebs. There was even a whole organization, the Wine Century Club, where membership requires a comprehensive record of 100 varieties you’ve imbibed, along with their regions and producers. I started my own mental list . . . then fell asleep. Kind of like counting sheep, but for wine professionals.
After a few more evenings taking this dose of vinous Ambien, I decided I actually wanted to know if I’d tried 100 different grapes. I pulled up a Word document, and within five minutes, I’d far exceeded the count, which made me wonder, who hasn’t tasted 100 grapes?
That unnervingly pretentious, fleeting thought aside, we are privileged to live in a time with unprecedented admission to the world’s diversity of wine. Restaurant lists are more daring, wine regions more dedicated to commercializing their autochthonous varieties, and science more capable than ever of identifying grapes thought lost to history. It seems every week Italy or Greece or Romania unearths an unknown cultivar, rescuing it from extinction. Reaching 100 isn’t as difficult as it used to be.
Although access has increased, the wine world is still molded to homogenization trends of the post-phylloxera era. According to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine, there exist an approximate 10,000 grape varieties, 6,000 belonging to the fine wine species Vitis vinifera. Among them, a mere 13 grapes constitute over one-third of the global vineyard space, and 33 make up more than half. But those 9,967 other grape varieties sure have been noisy of late. Where have they come from? Where are they going? And why should we care?
As with so much in the modern history of wine, the 19th-century phylloxera crisis, beginning in France in the 1860s, marked the watershed moment in the decline of Europe’s grape diversity. This, paired with the prior travesty of oidium, resulted in the replanting of almost all of Europe. In France alone, the total area under vine decreased by approximately one-third from just before phylloxera to 1900. While some regions were abandoned outright, those that did again see grapes were hardly recognizable from the days before the aphid’s destruction.
Replanting allowed vignerons to reassess their winegrowing strategies, and only the most financially advantageous varieties made the cut for many producers. Of paramount importance were yield and consistency. Unfinicky grapes that could provide bountiful harvests took preference, a means to replenish wine stocks as swiftly as possible when acreage was still down. Varieties that demonstrated signs of other maladies, as well as those that were low yielding, difficult to ripen, or susceptible to other challenges such as millerandage or coulure, were more likely to face eradication regardless of potential quality. Clonal diversity similarly decreased. Certain varieties showed more likely to reject grafting onto American rootstock—the antidote to phylloxera—resulting in their diminished roles, too. It’s impossible to quantify just how many varieties were lost, but the number can only be immense.
The great European replant not only narrowed the field of extant grapes, it also largely eliminated the environment in which new ones might emerge. Before phylloxera, grapes were generally interplanted, and vines were propagated through provignage, or layering. In this method, a long cane from one vine is buried partly underground, allowing it to take root, with the tip resurfacing as the stump of a new vine. Vineyards planted this way appeared more chaotic, and chance seedlings would easily be overlooked, giving birth to new grapes. The need for vine grafting eliminated provignage as a viable planting method, and post-phylloxera vineyards were instead organized in rows. Any pip that might dare to sprout would inevitably be ripped out. Rather than natural occurrences, from then forward new grape varieties emerged from intentional crosses at the hands of humans.
But phylloxera wasn’t the last nail in the coffin for many grapes: the 20th century brought a host of new obstacles. The World Wars morphed many vineyards into combat zones, requiring more replants, and various economic woes continued the emphasis of quantity over quality. The emergence of controlled appellation systems, beginning in 1935 with the establishment of what would become France’s INAO, further hindered the survival of many cultivars. While generally viewed as a tremendous advancement for fine wine, controlled appellations, as have been adopted across Europe, have also contradicted desires to preserve the most imperiled of native grapes. By codifying into law which varieties are permitted to be grown within an appellation, winegrowers are given little reason to continue cultivating those grapes that cannot afford them the highest tier on the quality pyramid.
More recently, financial incentives from the European Union in the latter decades of the 20th century have encouraged growers to uproot their vines, a program designed to reduce the continent’s wine surplus. Between the late 1970s and 1996, about 550,000 hectares of Italian vineyards were pulled, along with nearly 400,000 hectares in France. Prolific and profitable varieties were better likely to survive these vine pull schemes than more arcane examples.
Cultural factors, too, accounted for a homogenization of wine in the second half of the 20th century. The advent of the New World changed the game for the industry, and many of these countries’ most successful wines were harvested from just a scant few blockbuster French varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and the like. Instead of labeling their wines by region, as continues to be the case in Europe, they would sell them by variety—thus further boosting the brands for these already ubiquitous grapes. Some European countries, such as Italy, Spain, and Greece, would mimic New World tactics, planting French grapes themselves, sometimes yielding wines of great acclaim. In the 1980s, Robert Parker came to prominence. Often derided for catalyzing a uniform style of winemaking, those accusations might extend to limiting the number of prestige varieties.
Yet cultural factors can also account for the pendulum’s swing back. Today, a new generation of winemakers and wine drinkers shows enthusiasm for new-old things—heritage styles, historic methods of production, and varieties outside of the French popular crowd. Localism has redefined 21st-century food trends, and while that doesn’t necessarily equate to drinking exclusively domestic wines, it helps reestablish the bond between grape varieties and their home environments. An overabundance of Cabernets and Chardonnays worldwide has forced many less-developed wine regions and countries to reexamine their own relationships with major French grapes. While appropriating varieties already known to consumers once appeared the go-to strategy, now leveraging interest from more adventurous—albeit potentially more fickle—palates has prompted many producers to put their native grapes back atop the pedestal.
Such movements are complemented by scientific advancements that have allowed for the identification and preservation of grape varieties. The same technology that allowed for forensic analysis and human DNA sequencing was co-opted by the wine industry beginning in the early 1990s, extending far beyond the limitations of classical ampelography. With the ability to map grapes, researchers have rewritten the global comprehension of wine, its history and biology alike. Such efforts culminated in the 2012 publication of Wine Grapes, the seminal work by MW Jancis Robinson, MW Julia Harding, and Dr. José Vouillamoz, cataloguing 1,368 of the world’s varieties. And discoveries have abounded within the last several years, many with the involvement of Vouillamoz, who travels the globe analyzing grapes. “If we do a second edition,” he says, “it would be around 1,500 varieties . . . at least.”
Indigenous grape movements have affected every winegrowing country in Europe, bringing about a diversity of varieties and styles previously unknown to the modern wine drinker. Below is a tour of several highlights.
Confounding and seemingly limitless in its riches, Italy’s influence in varietal preservation cannot be overstated. The country is commonly cited as home to the greatest number of native grapes in commercial production—ranging from the triple to quadruple digits, depending who’s counting (but triple seems more likely). Still, Italy’s diversity has not been immune to the effects of the last two centuries, and the boot balances a complicated dualism between its native born and a smattering of French and international varieties that became instrumental to many of the country’s 20th-century successes.
Take Merlot, for example, a grape that has been grown in the Veneto and Friuli for several centuries. In 2011, Merlot was recorded as Italy’s fifth most planted variety, trailing only Sangiovese and Montepulciano among reds. (Chardonnay is third among whites.) For a time, in the 1980s and 1990s, Merlot appeared to be a next great frontier for fine Italian wine. Cabernet Sauvignon had already made its mark with Tenuta San Guido’s Sassicaia in 1968 and Antinori’s Solaia a decade later. In 1985 in Chianti Classico, Castello di Ama laid claim to Tuscany's first varietal Merlot, its L’Apparita. The following vintage, this time in Bolgheri, Ornellaia released a prototype for Masseto (that name, however, would not appear on the bottle until 1987). These were quickly joined by the likes of Le Macchiole’s Messorio and Tua Rita’s Redigaffi, and outside of Tuscany, producers like Miani began fermenting Merlots of cachet (fellow Friulian Borgo del Tiglio made its first Rosso della Centa, a Merlot, also in 1985). At a time when Chianti was still largely associated with fiaschi, these Super Tuscans and Super Italians from French grapes were giving a new face to Italian fine wine—during peak Parker era, at that. These wines, together with cult examples of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as blends between French and Italian grapes, continue to command some of Italy’s highest prices. Of course, that’s not all they’re used for—there’s plenty of innocuous bulk Italian Merlot on supermarket shelves. But Merlot’s acreage declined by 6% between 2000 and 2010, a timeframe simultaneous to this emerging global hype for indigenous varieties. Though French grapes still hold importance in the Italian vineyard, their future appears weakened by the accelerating interest, both at the hands of producers and the public, of Italy’s native grapes all across the peninsula and its islands.
A comprehensive catalog of each of Italy’s indigenous grape preservation initiatives is far too extensive to include here. In Tuscany, Agricola San Felice in Chianti Classico planted its own experimental blocks in the 1980s and has partnered with the Universities of Florence and Pisa to safeguard Tuscan varieties beyond Sangiovese. One of its success stories is the blending grape Pugnitello, encountered at Poggio di Sassi in 1981, then extensively researched at San Felice. In Piedmont, such varieties as Timorasso (a white cultivar almost completely unspoken of through the whole of the 20th century) have resurfaced, this one thanks to producer Walter Massa. Other grapes such as Grignolino, Quagliano, Pelaverga Piccolo and Grosso, and Freisa have helped broaden Piedmont’s identity beyond Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Dolcetto. In Valpolicella, Masi revitalized Oseleta, a powerfully structured blending grape useful for Amarone. The Centro Ricerca per la Viticoltura di Conegliano has discovered dozens of Friulian varieties with no prior documentation, while similar projects have been performed in Liguria, Emilia-Romagna, and beyond. The small Valle d’Aosta was an early leader in such endeavors, the Institut Agricole Régional propagating local grapes in trial vineyards since the 1960s. Further south, Campania has managed to maintain a large breadth of its native varieties, largely due to more of its soils better resisting phylloxera. Its historically poorer economy also limited resources for replants. Sicily’s Istituto Regionale del Vino e dell’Olio has been critical to the identification of the island’s indigenous holdings, helping propel an area once largely associated with bulk production to new heights.
Of Italy’s non-native grapes, Ian D’Agata makes a point to distinguish between those like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot—each enjoying hundreds of years of winegrowing tradition in Northern Italy—and more recent arrivals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. While not born there, Alto Adige’s Pinot Biancos are arguably the world’s best expressions of the variety, and those others listed have existed in Italy long enough to weave themselves into the historic vinescape. Deeper still, he argues, is the relationship of Cannonau (Grenache) to Sardinia, having arrived from Spain, where it is called Garnacha, a half-millennium prior. Time has allowed Cannonau to mutate on Sardinia, and while it will never be native, several biotypes are, allowing for local typicity.
Spain is perhaps the only country other than France to produce more than one truly international variety. Garnacha, Monastrell, and Cariñena—though better known by their French names Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Carignan—have globetrotted across the Pyrenees and to several corners of the New World. Despite these marquis names, along with mainstays like Tempranillo, the recovery of Spain’s wine industry post-phylloxera stagnated in the wake of their Civil War and the subsequent Franco regime, only resuming upon his death in 1975. Cooperatives dominated and demanded high yields, hence the proliferation across the country of Palomino, a vigorous but rather innocuous white when not being made into Sherry. French varieties found their way both into Spain’s massive bulk wine machine, as well as fine wine culture—for example, famed enologist Émile Peynaud’s introduction of Sauvignon Blanc to Rueda. Regrettably for some, that trend has continued, with regions like Rioja first authorizing Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in 2009 and allowing them to be varietally labeled in 2017. Even so, Spain maintains a rewarding suite of indigenous grapes, and autonomous communities such as Galicia, Catalonia, and the Canary Islands are bottling a dizzying array of native varieties that have redefined Spanish wine for the 21st century.
Portugal, by contrast, has remained more loyal to its indigenous grapes. David Baverstock, Director of Enology at leading Alentejo producer Esporão, credits the industrial isolation and Portugal’s historic table wine culture. “Twenty or 30 years [ago], most of the wine in Portugal was drunk within its borders, and it wasn’t really exported apart from Port wine and Mateus Rosé,” he says. “Multinationals weren’t looking at Portugal as a place to invest in, because Portuguese wines weren’t really on the map." Notwithstanding, French grapes did eventually find their way into Portuguese vineyards. The late decades of the 20th century saw increased plantings of staples like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Chardonnay, while the also French Alicante Bouschet has a much older history in Portugal, beginning soon after its initial crossing by Henri Bouschet in 1866. Some regions, like the Douro, Dão, and Bairrada, have proven more impervious to foreign varieties, but others, such as Alentejo and Tejo, have embraced these cultivars—less as threats and more as additions to their native selection.
Since the 1990s, the National Vitivinicultural Research Station at Dois Portos, headed by Dr. Eiras Dias, has sought to analyze and preserve Portugal’s native grapes—both wild and domesticated. As of 2013, their research counted 243 domesticated varieties in Portugal. Several wineries have also taken it upon themselves to propagate these native grapes. Esporão, for example, recently planted an experimental vineyard to 188 different varieties, native and foreign, both for the sake of preservation and to find more drought-resistant grapes adaptable to a changing climate.
As these global movements could be viewed as a reaction against Franco-centrism, France has been notably excluded from the dialogue regarding the recovery of native varieties. Nonetheless, the French too enjoy their fair share of esoteric indigenous grapes, and various efforts to expand that list can be found nationwide. In 2007, Pierre Galet, the luminary of 20th-century ampelography, along with José Vouillamoz and others, formed the Centre d’Ampélographie Alpine Pierre Galet (CAAPG). The CAAPG aims to preserve cultivars found in the French Alps (namely Savoie), including an emergency conservatory where varieties nearing extinction, such as Bia, Onchette, Sérénèze, Servanin, Mondeuse Blanche, and Mornen, can be propagated. In his book Godforsaken Grapes, Jason Wilson recounts a story from the CAAPG, where the lone grower of Serenelle was hesitant to relinquish his rarified grapes for scientific research rather than harvesting them himself, as he normally would. He was swayed with a trade from the CAAPG for an equal weight of the much more profitable Gamay.
Plaimont, a union of cooperatives in Gascony, cultivates a conservatory with the same ambition, but for southwestern grapes. Such varieties as Manseng Noir and Tardif have been rediscovered by Plaimont, which also tends to a plot of pre-phylloxera vines that demonstrates the area’s ample diversity. In Corsica, a number of lesser-known grapes have evaded total eradication thanks to the singular work of such producers as Yves Canarelli and Antoine Arena with Biancu Gentile or Antoine Abbatucci with Brustiano.
In more name-brand regions, several wineries have launched programs to preserve their regions’ heritage. Loïc Pasquet, vigneron of Liber Pater in Graves (a winery that made headlines this summer for releasing the world’s most expensive wine at €30,000 a bottle), seeks to recapture the profile of pre-phylloxera Bordeaux. He works with ungrafted vines, including such obscurities as Castets and Saint-Macaire. A handful of Champagne houses dodge the Pinot Noir-Pinot Meunier-Chardonnay trifecta, vinifying the region’s other permitted varieties: Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane, and Petit Meslier. Duval-Leroy bottles a varietal example of the latter, a grape originating near Champagne.
While little is tasted outside its bounds (roughly 99% of Swiss wine is consumed domestically), Switzerland contains a multitude of native grapes and has achieved great strides in protecting them. A large concentration can be found in the Valais region, where the Rhône River begins, before it meets Lake Geneva. Switzerland’s signature variety, Chasselas, is believed to have been born near Lake Geneva as well, but the country’s palette of grapes extends much further. The variety Himbertscha was rescued in the 1980s by Josef-Marie Chanton in the Haut-Valais and later preserved by VinEsch, an association he founded in 2010, also with José Vouillamoz, seeking to identify and save similar local grapes. From this same vineyard, Vouillamoz has discovered and dubbed VinEsch Roter, and sparse plantings of Humagne and Lafnetscha, both related to Himbertscha, can be found nearby. Notably, Switzerland continues to harvest the founder variety Gouais Blanc (here called Gwäss), an ancient and prolific progenitor whose list of illustrious direct offspring includes Chardonnay, Gamay, and Riesling.
Much of Germany and Austria’s varietal diversity has sprung from the many crossings developed over the course of the last two centuries. Several of these—such as Germany’s Kerner, Müller-Thurgau, Scheurebe, and Dornfelder and Austria’s Zweigelt—have become notable contributors to their countries’ wine industries, and some have traversed international borders. Researchers continue to create new crosses and hybrids today at institutions such as Austria Federal Institute for Viticulture and Pomology at Klosterneuburg, where Dr. Ferdinand Regner, who also performs important DNA analysis on the country’s existing grapes, develops new varieties in the hopes of combatting climate change and disease. Still, the popularity—and the prestige—of these “native” grapes is clobbered by the likes of Riesling and Grüner Veltliner, as well as French varieties. In Germany, for example, between 1995 and 2017, Riesling’s total acreage (23.2% of the national total in 2017) remained nearly static, and plantings of Müller-Thurgau, Kerner, and Scheurebe shrunk to roughly half or one-third of their former standings. Meanwhile, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris doubled, Chardonnay increased more than seven-fold, and Sauvignon Blanc emerged.
While Central and Eastern Europe house a treasure trove of seemingly unpronounceable grape varieties, those countries that comprised the Eastern Bloc faced unrelenting challenges through the end of the 20th century. With many of their wine industries consolidated under state monopoly and pressure to supply wine to the USSR and Comecon, vineyards were commonly reduced to their most high-yielding indigenous varieties, if not international intruders. In Bulgaria, for example, replantings coincided with largescale vineyard redesign to better allow for industrialization. The mandated vine training systems were poorly suited to Bulgarian cultivars. The vestiges are hard to miss—Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon remain Bulgaria’s most cultivated grapes. Romania, by contrast, skirted much loss of its biodiversity, as it was not consigned to supply wine to Comecon.
The years following the fall of the Iron Curtain have seen renewed interest in these countries’ native varieties. The most glorious renaissance belongs to Tokaj, where immediate investment from the global wine community resurrected historic sweet wine vineyards. Today, Furmint and its common accessory Hárslevelű have made waves for both dry wines and their traditional botrytized expressions. In Romania, plantings of Fetească Neagră, a red grape with tremendous promise, more than doubled between 2006 and 2017, with increased real estate in Moldova as well. One notable Central European discovery was the true identity of “America’s grape,” Zinfandel. While recognized as Puglia’s Primitivo by Austin Goheen in 1967, Croatian-born Napa winemaker Mike Grgich and Dr. Carole Meredith, in partnership with the University of Zagreb, sought to confirm Zinfandel’s supposed Croatian origins. Plavac Mali had long been suspected, but DNA analysis in 2001 revealed Zinfandel synonymous with Crljenak Kaštelanski, or Tribidrag. Only 22 vines of Tribidrag were identified at the time of the findings, a number that has now shot up to more than 200,000.
Greek wine has seen several chapters of reinvention since the mid-20th century, and while the most recent has fully deployed its army of indigenous grapes (MW Yiannis Karakasis estimates 90 to 95% of Greek vineyards are planted to native cultivars), the first phases relied on French varieties. For several decades, many of the early benchmarks of Greece’s quality revolution included Cabernet Sauvignon. Katogi Averoff, in Epirus, planted Greece’s first Cabernet following the winery’s inception in 1959. In the 1960s, Porto Carras in Macedonia’s Slopes of Meliton similarly focused on Bordeaux varieties, hiring Émile Peynaud as a consultant. Skouras, established in Nemea in 1986, blends a portion of Cabernet with Agiorgitiko for its top-shelf Megas Oenos. Up until fairly recently, French varieties seemed the intelligent path. In his book for the Classic Wine Library series, MW Konstantinos Lazarakis writes, “Selling Assyrtiko in top New York restaurants back in 1985 would have been impossible—a Greek Chardonnay would have stood more chance.”
Fortunately, Greece had institutions in place that would allow its native grapes to survive. In Athens, the Wine Institute was established in 1937; its work today largely concentrates on identifying and safeguarding indigenous varieties. An approximate 200 are recorded, and there are possibly hundreds more, according to some. The first major contemporary success for Greek indigenous grapes came from Santorini, with its white, Assyrtiko. The Aegean island modernized its vinification practices in the 1980s and ‘90s, decreasing ripeness and focusing on reductive handling, with fresher, but cellar-worthy, wines as a result. The remarkable commercial ascent of Santorini’s wines has led many neighboring regions and countries on a quest to find their own Assyrtiko, as well as the dissemination of that variety throughout Greece. Several other grapes have risen from obscurity. Malagousia, for example, was almost unknown in the 1970s, until a professor from the Agricultural University of Thessaloniki brought some cuttings to a small plot he was renting from Porto Carras. Their winemaker took note, and today Malagousia counts among Greece’s most valued grapes. Daphne, a white from Crete, and Limniona, a red from Thessaly, similarly faced going extinct until recent resuscitation.
Both of Israel’s major turning points in its contemporary wine history revolve around Cabernet Sauvignon—first the investment in Carmel by Baron Edmond de Rothschild of Château Lafite in the 1880s, second the establishment of Golan Heights Winery a century later. Though Israel would eventually deliver upon Rothschild’s dream of making great Bordeaux-style wines, and more recently excellent Rhône-inspired wines as well, a consideration of the country’s native varieties remains a new development. Dr. Shivi Drori, professor at Ariel University and proprietor of Gva’ot, has isolated more than 120 grape varieties, domesticated and wild, indigenous to Israel and the West Bank. Among the most significant are Marawi, Dabouki, Jandali, and Bittuni. Many of these native grapes were concentrated around Bethlehem and Hebron in the West Bank, where they were trained in a pergola-like system, and some were distilled as arak, the Middle Eastern anise spirit. Palestinian wineries like Cremisan, a monastery, have also sought to protect and vinify these varieties. Drori is now preparing to insert the most promising grapes into nurseries, hoping that Israeli winemakers will further propagate them. The marketing prospects of biblical wines from the Holy Land are not lost on Drori—“the rebirth of the ancient varieties,” as he calls it.
Lebanon shares a several-century relationship with France, and as such, much of Lebanese wine culture is deeply French influenced. That includes its principal varieties—a combination of Bordeaux and Rhône—but two of its grapes, Obaideh and Merweh (unrelated to Marawi), were mistakenly believed to be clonal variations of Chardonnay and Sémillon, respectively. They are, in truth, entirely distinct grapes and native to Lebanon, though in character they still draw many parallels to their French counterparts. Cyprus’s wine industry fell into disarray following a 1996 ruling from the European Union that forbade the bottling of “Sherry” outside of Andalucía. Cyprus Sherry had become its most important export, but the blow became a blessing for Cypriot indigenous grapes. Grapes like Xynisteri, used for the ancient dried-grape wine Commandaria, met modern oenology for dry bottlings, and other varieties, such as Promara, Morokanella, Maratheftiko, and Yiannoudin have ushered in an auspicious new age for Cyprus.
Vitis vinifera is believed to originate in the Caucasus. It is not surprising, then, that Georgia boasts an extraordinary cornucopia of native grapes (estimates vary, but a minimum of 400 can be assumed), as well as claims to the world’s oldest wine culture. Several of Georgia’s wine varieties are single sex (see below) and require interplanting to ensure fruitfulness. Challenges with pollination aside, this rare anatomical condition has by default helped preserve some diversity. Still, Georgian grape varieties, like their European counterparts, suffered the ravages of phylloxera and were further burdened during the Soviet Era. Though utilizing native vines, the USSR and its centralized wine industry increasingly demanded high-yielding grapes, and in the regime’s final throws, Georgia lost two-thirds of its vine area by way of Gorbachev’s 1985 anti-alcohol policies. Grapes like Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane Kakhuri, and Saperavi still monopolize much of Georgia’s vineyard, but efforts have been enacted to salvage the country’s diversity. The Georgian government instituted the National Wine Agency in 2014 with the intention of further recovering the country’s grapes by providing their vine material to local winegrowers.
Neighboring Armenia has also seen significant investment in its wine industry in the 21st century. Such influential consultants as Paul Hobbs, Michel Rolland, and Alberto Antonini have Armenian projects and have worked with its native grapes, the most important being the red Areni. Though domestic consumers show preference for international varieties, Turkish winemakers continue to bottle a host of the country’s indigenous grapes. The red Boğazkere and white Narince are among the most prized for fine wine production.
While the genus Vitis contains more than 60 vine species (some count over 80, and the bulk are endemic to North America and East Asia), the near entirety of global fine wine derives from the single species Vitis vinifera, which in turn can be categorized by two subspecies. Vitis vinifera subspecies vinifera (or sativa) refers to domesticated vines, and the subspecies silvestris involves those encountered in the wild. Generally, the two subspecies demonstrate morphological differences. Domesticated vines possess both male and female anatomies and can self-pollinate, whereas wild vines typically cannot, requiring proximity to vines with flowers of the opposite sex in order to bear fruit. Exceptions do exist, and undoubtedly ancient humans favored hermaphroditism in the wild vines they propagated themselves. Furthermore, subspecies silvestris does not encompass a series of varieties in the way subspecies vinifera does. Rather, each wild vine plant could be considered a unique variety. Wild vines can, however, extend their reach through a sort of layering process of their own. Their existence, too, has seen drastic decline due to phylloxera.
Self-pollination is fundamental for consistent fruit set, but cross pollination is what gives birth to new grape varieties. Each variety has a lineage that begins with a father, whose pollen travels from the stamen of one of his flowers to a pistil belonging to the mother. Although the flesh and skin of the berries will be consistent with the mother, each individual grape will contain a genetically distinct seed as a result of the cross. This holds true for self-pollinating vines as well, but their offspring are widely non-viable as a result of inbreeding.
Every seed contains the potential for a new grape variety, and every grape variety derives from two parents and a single pip. (Intravarietal clones, by contrast, arise through mutation, distinguishing them from varieties.) It's miraculous to consider how unlikely it is that any variety comes into existence. As discovered by Dr. Carole Meredith and John Bowers in 1997, Cabernet Sauvignon’s mother is Sauvignon Blanc and its father Cabernet Franc. But if you cross Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc in a lab, you’ll never get Cabernet Sauvignon again. Instead, Cabernet Sauvignon only came to be through a random pollination, likely in the Gironde before 1700. The single grape seed that held the DNA of Cabernet Sauvignon would have needed to reach the ground and sprout. Perhaps the wind pushed it further from its mother vine tree, or a bird or rodent consumed its berry and deposited the pip elsewhere, hours later.
Even after taking root, the young vine still faced several years with its survival stacked against the odds. A grazing animal could have easily taken the seedling plant for sustenance, or a winegrower might have pulled it from the earth. Instead, that same farmer would have needed to recognize the unique attributes of this particular vine’s clusters and decide to cultivate it further. Should the wind have blown a different way, a swallow have flown in the opposite direction, a person have mistaken the vine for a weed, we might never have experienced Cabernet Sauvignon, the course of wine history colossally changed.
The systematic identification of grape varieties based on their distinct physical attributes, the sector of study called ampelography, is documented from antiquity. The earliest ameplographical efforts were rather elementary in approach—cataloging grapes by color, their service for consumption versus fermentation, and particularities of the vine cycle. These last two centuries have witnessed notable advancements. In 1946, the Russian ampelographer A. M. Negrul published his groundbreaking research categorizing all grape varieties into three proles: occidentalis, pontica, and orientalis. Groupings were determined by geographic range and physical characteristics. Occidentalis corresponds to Western Europe; its varieties, which include the classics like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, are better adapted to colder winters and feature smaller berries and more compact clusters. Pontica varieties, like Furmint, coming from Central Europe, the Aegean and Black Seas, the Caucasus, and beyond, have larger grapes and hairy undersides to their leaves. Those classified as orientalis, such as Muscat of Alexandria, are generally Middle Eastern in origin, and their grapes loosely bunched and often ovoid in shape.
The 20th century’s most influential ampelographer, Pierre Galet, revolutionized the field in the 1950s and ‘60s with his multi-volume work Cépages et vignobles de France. His methodical approach, detailing minute distinctions in vine morphology, brought a more objective lens to a practice often criticized for being more art than hard science. Still, the fundamentals of ampelography had remained intact for millennia, including several legitimate shortcomings. For one, ampelography requires leaves, and ideally grapes, on the vine. This limits vine study to a small period of time, excluding winter dormancy and portions of the growing season. Furthermore, vines of the same variety can exhibit dramatic phenological differences, altered by clone, location, and disease. Lastly, only so much is observable to the naked eye, and even the shrewdest ampelographers can only memorize so many leaf shapes.
In the 1990s, methodologies for identifying grape varieties were entirely upended through advancements in DNA profiling. Essentially the same analyses that could link a murderer to a crime scene can be used to confirm if two vines are of the same variety. DNA can be sampled from anywhere on the vine (except for the seeds), but rather than comparing two sets of DNA in their entireties, scientists will zoom in on a selection of what are called microsatellites. Non-protein coding and perceived as generally inactive, microsatellites or simple sequence repeats are repetitive portions of DNA that are prone to mutation. Accordingly, they are highly variable between separate varieties. Typically a minimum six microsatellites are required to confirm a match, but accuracy increases with the number of microsatellites studied, especially between closely related grapes.
DNA analysis was first applied to Vitis vinifera in Australia in 1993, by M. R. Thomas and N. S. Scott. While ampelography still has its place—it can prove handy for viticulturalists to pinpoint varieties onsite—DNA analysis has become the new norm for identifying grapes. Laboratories around the globe can access a shared database of microsatellite sequences, allowing for many of the unlikely discoveries that have propelled the indigenous grape movement. DNA analysis has also revealed some long undetected misnomers—such as last year’s revelation that some California Central Coast Mourvèdre was actually the minor Rioja blending grape Graciano. Beyond mere verification, DNA analysis has deepened our understanding of the relationships between different varieties. Parentage tests have led to detailed pedigree charts, resolving mysteries in the history of wine along with broader anthropological applications. Did crusaders really bring Syrah to France from medieval Persia, home to the city Shiraz? DNA findings suggest this is purely mythology—Syrah is, in fact, native to the Rhône.
When a grape variety was abandoned during the phylloxera crisis or subsequent years, it was likely for a reason—small crops, susceptibility to disease, uneven ripening. Such hurdles beg the question, why save a lackluster grape? One answer is that it’s no longer 1870. Advancements in viticulture and oenology can combat many of the obstacles 19th-century winegrowers encountered. Grapes that were challenging then might now have simple solutions. Wine styles, too, have evolved, and grapes that were unsuitable for pre-phylloxera products may well satisfy contemporary tastes. What made a grape “good” in the 1800s doesn’t necessarily translate to what makes it worthy today.
Still, some requirements carry over. Weeding through over 100 varieties identified in Israel and the West Bank, Dr. Shivi Drori looks at three traits to determine a grape’s prospects. First, “You have to see that the grape accumulates enough sugar and enough acidity to be able to produce stable wine,” he says. The second consideration seems equally reasonable: “If you have a grapevine that gives you only two bunches per vine, that’s not enough for anything.” While yields don’t have to reach the prolific crop levels favored during the phylloxera crisis, grapes should still be fruitful enough that planting them remains fiscally responsible. His third condition, though, is the most subjective: demonstration of organoleptic characters interesting enough to suggest commercial potential. For Drori that means whites that aren’t too tannic and reds with enough pigment and aroma, along with other factors. More simply, it has to taste good and have some degree of complexity.
Beyond yields or disease resistance, more specific morphological considerations might also factor into the conservation of indigenous varieties. In certain idiosyncratic terroirs, native grapes might show rare adaptabilities essential to their environments. Dorona, for example, has somehow shown resilience to the brackish waters of the Venetian lagoon, where Venissa, a project by Prosecco producer Bisol, harvests the grape on the island of Mazzorbo. Conversely, other grapes might demonstrate unique challenges—forcing winegrowers to weigh their capriciousness with their ultimate quality. On Cyprus, Maratheftiko has been selected as a native red of high potential, despite its difficult fruit set. While genetically hermaphroditic, its flowers are physiologically only female, requiring interplanting with other varieties to ensure pollination. Lambrusco di Sorbara, in Emilia-Romagna, shares a similar predicament, as do several Georgian grapes. In Israel and the West Bank, the native Bittuni has berries too large to fit through the holes of a standard crusher-destemmer. As a result, winemakers must find other ways to crush the grapes; several instead opt for whole-cluster fermentations.
But with many recently rediscovered varieties, potential wine quality is purely conjecture. While widely planted varieties essentially come with an instruction manual for how to vinify them, when it comes to new native grapes, you kind of have to wing it. With the intention of showcasing varietal character, some producers might at first stay hands-off, aging reds in neutral oak, if at all, bottling whites after only a few months in stainless steel. Drori has taken a similar standardized approach to new varieties. “Overall, you can say we’re using the same protocols used for Riesling for the whites . . . and Cabernet Sauvignon for the reds,” he says. Others might rely on a series of trials before settling on a style. Yiannis Karakasis explains that Greek producers will commonly perform a set of microvinifications and present them to wine shops for feedback on commercial prospects. Others still confess to shooting in the dark. Dr. José Vouillamoz recalls his attempts to figure out what to do with Diolle, a Swiss grape he saved from extinction when two vines or so remained. “We did a little bit of skin maceration. . . . We also tried to do batônnage,” he admits. But such experimentation also extends to the vineyard. Of graver concern, Vouillamoz learned Diolle to be incompatible with its chosen rootstock, requiring him to pull out the variety once more and replant anew. “We have no idea,” he relents. But it’s this patient work that’s needed for each of these grapes to determine their viability.
While Vitis vinifera is non-native to the New World, there is nothing that would biologically preclude indigenous varieties from emerging outside of Europe. After all, vinifera doesn’t originate in France or Italy, either. Nevertheless, the Americas, Oceania, and South Africa have generally been planted utilizing modern, more organized practices—inhibiting the development of new, naturally born grape varieties, as was similarly the case in post-phylloxera Europe. New grapes that have come from the New World have most commonly been laboratory-created crosses, as with South Africa’s Pinotage (bred from Pinot Noir and Cinsault in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold at the University of Stellenbosch), or inter-species hybrids like Norton (created in the early 1800s by Daniel Norborne Norton in Richmond, Virginia, by crossing Bland, itself a Vitis vinifera x Vitis labrusca hybrid, and what he believed was Pinot Meunier, although recent studies have suggested it was Enfariné Noir).
One notable exception is the Criolla group, a collection of heritage varieties with several centuries of cultivation in South America. Among them, all three South American varieties of Torrontés (genetically distinct from what is also called Torrontés in Spain)—Sanjuanino, Riojano, and Mendocino—are likely to originate from Argentina’s vineyards rather than those of Iberia. Pedro Giménez (not to be confused with Montilla-Moriles’s Pedro Ximénez) shares a similar pedigree. In Japan, a selection of Vitis vinifera varieties show complete genetic distinction from their European counterparts, suggesting autochthony to East Asia. The most famous of these is the pink-skinned Koshu, and analysis by Nami Goto-Yamamoto has revealed that the grape is not 100% vinifera, but most likely an in situ hybridization of primarily vinifera and wild Chinese vine species.
In the United States, analogous initiatives strive to protect the continent’s indigenous grape species along with American hybrids. American grapes have long been neglected for wine production due to what’s perceived as a “foxy” quality—a feral, grapey character disagreeable to many vinifera-biased palates. Some contemporary winemakers, equipped with new technologies and vinification practices, challenge those vulpine assumptions. Such producers as La Garagista in Vermont, founded by Deirdre Heekin and Caleb Barber, have championed curiosities like Marquette, La Crescent, and Frontenac Noir, both for their heirloom status and their cold-hardiness, American genetic contributions better shielding them from bitter New England winters than pure vinifera could.
Collectively, however, these endeavors represent a small minority of the New World, and French grapes remain at the forefront of the New World’s most iconic wines. Each major New World region has adopted a French signature variety: Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in California, Pinot Noir in Oregon, Malbec in Argentina, Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand, Syrah in Australia, and so on. But the reclamation of European indigenous grapes in their homelands has sparked consideration in New World countries. A hotbed for innovation, untethered to strict appellation laws with varietal restrictions, the New World boasts myriad recent examples of exotic grapes finding their way to foreign lands.
This isn’t the first occasion where the New World has asked, what’s next? In the 1980s, following the Golden State’s triumph at the 1976 Judgment of Paris and the apotheosis of Napa Valley Cabernet as a new classic, California winemakers searched for the next big thing. Many hypothesized that would be Italian grapes. The industry was embedded in the perspective of 19th-century Italian immigrants (along with those from other nations), who had brought their own winegrowing traditions and even cultivars to the Pacific’s shores. To some, the landscape was redolent of Tuscany’s rolling hills, and parallels could be drawn between California’s Mediterranean climes and many pockets of the Italian Peninsula. Both small mom-and-pop enterprises and industry heavyweights, such as Robert Mondavi’s La Famiglia label, put forth Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, and others as varieties of great potential in California. In 1987, the Marchese Piero Antinori, literal Tuscan royalty, purchased land atop Napa’s Atlas Peak for the express purpose of harvesting Sangiovese, a project that would become Antica.
Around the same time as “Cal-Ital’s” nascence, the Rhône Ranger movement in California’s Central Coast proposed an alternate solution to American wine’s future—Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, and other lesser-known grapes common to the south of France. In 1995, Earl Jones of Abacela planted his first vines in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, becoming the chief spokesperson for Tempranillo and Iberian grapes in the United States. He subsequently became the first president of TAPAS, the Tempranillo Advocates Producers & Amigos Society, which promotes Spanish and Portuguese grapes along the West Coast. Australia, too, observed its own push for Italian grapes, with producers like Alfredo and Katrina Pizzini in Victoria’s King Valley planting a slew of different varieties in the 1980s.
And yet, despite the initial enthusiasm, Cal-Ital’s first wave was largely a flop. Antica became better known for Cabernet Sauvignon, and La Famiglia shuttered. Many Italian grape vineyards were inevitably uprooted or grafted over, and producers resigned themselves to the adage you can’t make great wines from Italian grapes outside of Italy. I have heard that refrain echoed across the wine world, perhaps most importantly in Italy proper, but always wondered if there was any truth to it. Is there something about Italian grapes that make them less adaptable than French ones? It’s true that Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, despite being the stars of Tuscany and Piedmont and responsible for some of the world’s most prestigious wines, have never found a second classic home. One limitation to growing varieties outside their birthplaces is the lack of clonal diversity transported with them. Typically, grapes are believed to be local to the place where they show the most genetic diversity, and that variation can potentially allow for irreplaceable complexity. “I’m not too sure they give us the best clones either,” jokes Alfredo Pizzini of Italian bud material available abroad. Ian D’Agata suggests evaluating New World wines on their own merits. “If success is measured by the capacity to make Barolo in Napa,” he says, “then of course they are not successful wines, and never will be.” But so would be the expectation of growing Gevrey-Chambertin in the Willamette, he explains.
The best argument for harvesting Italian varieties outside of Italy is the new crop of wines, both in California and elsewhere, coming from a younger generation of winemakers with newfound passions for those grapes. They’re also operating at a time more concurrent with global interests in diversity, a marketing advantage withheld from their predecessors. While heavyweights like Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and Barbera have persevered, grapes like Vermentino have found their lobbyists in producers such as Ryme, Unti, and even Rhône Ranger icon Tablas Creek; Ribolla Gialla in projects like Dan Petroski’s Massican; and Arneis, the great white of Piedmont’s Roero, with Idlewild.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about so many of these wineries is not their focus on a single Italian variety or two, hailing from a narrow swath of land, but instead how they seemingly throw darts across Italy—a long, slender, and climatically heterogeneous country. Why, then, can far-flung grapes achieve viticultural success within the confines of a single New World vineyard? Alfredo Pizzini, who harvests such divergent grapes as Prosecco’s Glera, Piedmont’s Brachetto, Chianti blender Canaiolo, Montefalco’s Sagrantino, Riesling, and Shiraz, credits this phenomenon to his vineyard’s assortment of mesoclimates. “We’ve got undulating country,” he says. “And we’ve got different spaces of temperature because of the mountains behind us and where the sun rises and where it sets.” Brian Terrizzi, winemaker and vintner at Paso Robles’ Giornata, throws the question back to the Italians, who are often dumbfounded by the quality of his Aglianicos and Nebbiolos thriving in such close proximity. “Has anyone ever tried growing Aglianico in Piemonte?” he asks. He thinks the results could be intriguing, as could be Nebbiolo in Campania.
The New World’s transformation beyond the typical French fare is hardly limited to Italophiles. Jim Barry in Clare Valley planted in 2012 Australia’s first Assyrtiko, a grape traveling from the opposite latitudes of Europe as Clare Valley’s more famous white variety, Riesling. Alexander Copper, a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide, has spearheaded trials for the Cypriot grapes Xynisteri and Maratheftiko, connecting their drought tolerance with their potential to be dry-farmed in Australia, as opposed to certain French grapes that mandate irrigation. Hungary’s Furmint has sprouted in select locales, Swartland’s Signal Hill even bottling its own “Eszencia” (a category within Tokaj for the free-run juice of aszú berries, so viscous it’s often served on a spoon). Grüner Veltliner has become a jetsetter. Several producers can be found in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, the first among them Culmina. California’s inaugural harvest of Mencía, the trendy northwestern Spanish red behind Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo, took place in 2017 at Lodi’s Silvaspoons Vineyards. The grower, Ron Silva, also offers Iberian varieties Tempranillo, Souzão, and Touriga Nacional. In short, Cabernet’s time as the great colonizer of the New World might be coming to a close, as these countries’ futures appear to be more than just French.
While the New World has reached a period of remarkable experimentation, no major region yet has landed upon a single atypical, non-French grape to be its poster child. But consolidation could be underway for some. Albariño provides an intriguing case study for what these first steps might look like.
Albariño was among the earliest indigenous grape varieties to break through the droves of Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs and Rieslings and demonstrate the commercial potential of these other cultivars. In Spain alone, Albariño from Galicia’s Rías Baixas offered a fresh, yet high-quality, alternative in a country whose fine whites generally showed intense rancio qualities—oxidative characters resulting from extended barrel aging. A few stalwart producers, like Palacio de Fefiñanes, helped perpetuate Albariño traditions throughout the 1900s, when interest remained local. A selection of vines 200 to 300 years old even continue to bare fruit. But it wasn’t until the late 20th century, when the area found investment from further afield, that the wines caught the attention of the general public. In 1987, vineyard area in Rías Baixas was limited to 237 hectares, vinified by 14 wineries. By 2018, those metrics have multiplied to over 4,000 hectares and 180 bodegas. Spain’s new sensation went global, and in the 1990s, just as California winemakers were looking for the next great grape, Albariño started to appear on trendy New York wine lists. The American Court of Master Sommeliers today includes Albariño in tasting exams. Portugal has capitalized on Albariño’s success, too. Grown just across the border from Rías Baixas, its Vinho Verde, for which Albariño (here called Alvarinho) is a critical ingredient, has skyrocketed in popularity. Between 1995 and 2017, exports to the United States grew 397% in volume and 473% in value. In less than a quarter century, the Iberian variety went from niche to classic status.
It didn’t take long after Albariño’s arrival in urban American wine scenes for the grape to find its way into the vineyards, too. Vine material from Adegas Morgadío reached California in 1992, which winemaker Brian Babcock then rooted in Santa Barbara. Michael Havens, of Havens Winery, brought cuttings to Napa, while Bob and Louisa Lindquist, former owners of Qupé, released the first Albariño from their Edna Valley Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard in 2000, under Louisa’s Verdad label. In 2008, California counted a mere 28 acres of Albariño. That number has risen to 396 in 2018. Spanish-owned California wineries, such as Gloria Ferrer (the Carneros outpost of Cava producer Adegas Morgadío) and Artesa (owned by the Codorníu group), have bottled their own versions but are also joined by such prestigious producers as Napa’s Spottswoode.
Albariño can now be found in many of California’s appellations, but one region has several producers betting on the Iberian grape as their next big white: Lodi. Markus Bokisch planted his first vines of Albariño in the late 1990s, alongside Tempranillo and Graciano (no, not thinking it was Mourvèdre) at his Terra Alta Vineyard in Lodi’s Clements Hills AVA. Today, Bokisch harvests Albariño from four separate Lodi sites for three different bottlings. The winemaker for Markus Bokisch, Elyse Perry, estimates a dozen other Lodi wineries now follow their lead. At first glance, Albariño doesn’t make for the most obvious choice in Lodi. Just south of Sacramento, Lodi is far inland and arid—two words you cannot use to describe Rías Baixas. Perry credits Albariño’s unexpected suitability to consistent breezes coming from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. She also adds, “We have these real wild diurnal swings where it can be 95 [degrees Fahrenheit] during the day, and it’s 55 at night.” Some adjustments were required, Perry notes—at first, Bokisch would harvest at the same ripeness as Chardonnay but after several vintages began picking earlier, at around 21 Brix. That shift happened around 2008—and the Bokisch Terra Alta Vineyard Albariño from that year tastes waxen and honeyed, yet still kinetic with a taut saline energy. To put it otherwise, it felt just like quality, decade-old Spanish Albariño.
A small but growing contingency of producers in Uruguay is similarly convinced Albariño could become their flagship white, a complement to the red Tannat. The Bouza family now has more than a dozen Albariño vintages under its belt at its winery in Canelones, the region just north of Montevideo. They pioneered the variety in Uruguay, importing budwood from relatives in Rías Baixas. Further east on the Maldonado Coast, Bodega Garzón, the ambitious estate of Argentine billionaire Alejandro Bulgheroni, is set to a release an Albariño that will be Uruguay’s most expensive white wine. Aged in elongated lancero barrels (vessels even more stretched than the cigars employed by Didier Dagueneau in the Eastern Loire), this will be the third Albariño in Garzón’s portfolio, tiered above a stainless steel-aged entry and a concrete-fermented expression that sees extended lees contact. The trilogy mimics many offered by top Rías Baixas producers, who will similarly offer a crisp, young wine, a second aged longer sur lie, and a third that touches oak. Garzón tends to 40 hectares of Albariño, roughly 90% of the variety’s vineyard space in South America. Unlike in much of California, at Garzón, Albariño seems an obvious climatic fit. “We’re only 10 miles from the Atlantic Ocean,” explains Christian Wylie, Garzón’s managing director. “We have a lot of wind coming from Antarctica, cool climate, a lot of rain, and we also have the balasto, the granite soil.” Save the Antarctic proximity, everything else Wylie mentions fits the description of Rías Baixas.
Separate from its suitability to individual terroirs, Albariño traveled to the New World with several advantages unknown to other varieties. For one, it fills a void left by more quotidian grapes—offering a semi-aromatic, non-herbal white wine. Snappier and more refreshing than the typical Chardonnay, Albariño is also less polarizingly pungent than many Sauvignon Blancs while still being more interesting than most non-Italian, non-Alsatian Pinot Grigios. The Spanish have also already done most of the heavy lifting in building the grape’s brand. Unlike so many European wine regions, Rías Baixas has marketed its wines with the variety front and center. In fact, the Denominación de Origen’s name was simply Albariño, until Spain’s entry into the European Union in 1986 forced the adoption of Rías Baixas instead (the EU forbids grape varieties to serve as appellation names). Rías Baixas still permits varietal labeling, however, so long as the wine is entirely composed of Albariño, as most are. The result has been stronger awareness for Albariño over Rías Baixas, a statement that could not so quickly be said of Sangiovese and Chianti Classico, or even Tempranillo and Rioja. In a 2013 column from The New York Times, Eric Asimov notes, “People in restaurants, and not just in Spanish places, ask for albariño without being aware of producers or even that it comes largely from Rías Baixas, on the Atlantic coast of Galicia.” He suggests it has a brand power more akin to Italian Pinot Grigio. Such a position can certainly benefit producers making Albariño outside of Spain, whereas a winery selling domestic Melon shouldn’t rely on Muscadet to help its wines fly off the shelves.
While it will likely take decades for Albariño from any of these areas to be considered “classic,” these early victories might offer a blueprint for other New World regions seeking to adopt more unusual grapes. Santorini allows Assyrtiko to be printed on its bottles, as does Tokaj with its dry Furmints. Should these varieties continue to gain traction, perhaps that will help second homes to rally around them. Grapes like Vermentino can serve a similar purpose to Albariño, and among reds, maybe a higher-acid, light-bodied alternative to Pinot Noir is in order—something like Mencía, Xinomavro, or Nerello Mascalese. The opportunities appear more infinite today than ever before, the New World never newer.
Beyond the nobility in crossing names off the endangered grape list, what is the intrinsic value in saving all of these varieties? Not all grapes are created equal, and assuredly they’re not all as good as Sauvignon Blanc or Merlot. Are we valuing novelty over quality? In many of the countries discussed, a return to indigenous grapes may pay greater dividends in the long run. It may be easier to sell a Cabernet Sauvignon in grocery store wine aisles, but in order to premiumize an industry, investing in a grape that only your region makes might tip the invisible hand in your favor.
For others, the need to save these grapes may be more urgent. “They’ve been around since centuries. They’ve been through different climate changes. And now that we must all face climate change, these varieties, to me, are the best bet,” explains José Vouillamoz. He continues, “They have the plasticity, they have the biodiversity in each place that is necessary to face climate change.” Several regions have already heeded this advice. This past summer, the generic Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur AOPs began the approval process for more southerly and distinctly non-Bordelais varieties as Albariño, Petit Manseng, Touriga Nacional, and Arinaroa, among others, to be added to their blends. Winemakers argue it is vital they be prepared for a time when Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon may no longer be most suitable to their most definitive terroirs. Wineries in Cabernet Sauvignon’s great New World home, the Napa Valley, are also building up their arsenals. Producers like Larkmead and Spottswoode are preparing for experimental blocks, to feature such potential grapes as Aglianico, Tempranillo, Souzão, and, again, Touriga Nacional and Albariño. Exactly how effective diversifying grape varieties will be as a viticultural solution to the climate crisis remains unknown, but clearly many believe it has a promising role to play.
And yet for some, the rationale behind protecting the full scope of the world’s grape varieties is much more rudimentary. “It’s simple: they offer aromas and flavors not found in any other wines,” says Ian D’Agata. “They offer healthy rewards in a world where many people are getting, frankly, bored—and they should—by what they are tasting over and over again.” Sure, you can try Chardonnay from a near infinite number of places, but the differences between them will be far more nuanced than between a Torrontés and an Assyrtiko, D’Agata argues. At the end of the day, which challenge sounds more fun—tasting 100 Chardonnays, or tasting 100 grapes?
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Great article. Thank you.