By Tina Caputo
Thanks to DNA testing, anyone can identify a mysterious vine simply by sending a sample off to the lab. But for Virginia-based vineyard consultant Lucie Morton, a world-renowned ampelographer, it’s still crucial to know how to distinguish vines the old-fashioned way: by sight and touch.
It took Morton years to learn ampelography, a skill that few viticulturists in today’s high-tech world still work to master. “It’s like speaking a new language: practice makes perfect,” she says. “Ampelography is really hard, and it takes a trained eye. I would compare it to what a sommelier goes through in identifying wines blind. It takes interest, practice, focus. You build on your knowledge, just like you do with wine tasting, layering your experiences.”
With a name that comes from the Greek ampelos for vine and graphe for description, ampelography was not widely practiced until the second half of the 19th century, when parasites and vine diseases introduced from America began wiping out European vineyards. The study of cultivars resistant to phylloxera and other vine-destroyers became hugely important in replanting the world’s vineyards, and ampelography played a role in identifying grape varieties and rootstocks.
It wasn’t until 1944 that Pierre Galet, viticulture chair at the École Nationale Supérieure Agronomique de Montpellier, created the first dichotomous key for rootstocks cultivated in France. When he became Montpellier’s chief of viticultural control, Galet began teaching others how to identify rootstocks. In 1952, he published the definitive book Précis d’ampélographie pratique, a systematic guide to identifying grape vines based on their growing tips, leaves, and other physical traits.
There would be no equivalent guide in English until 1979, when Morton translated and adapted the fourth edition of Galet’s book, leaving out non-essential varieties and adding new sections for grapes grown in the United States and Canada. She called it A Practical Ampelography.
Morton was not only a translator but also Galet’s graduate student and protégé. She was introduced to ampelography during her first field trip as a new student at Montpellier. She ended up in a car with Galet, unaware of his history or expertise. While driving to the research station in southern France, he said something that caught her attention. “He said, ‘Voila, Lucie, there is a fellow American.’ I looked at the road and I didn’t see any people, so I asked him, ‘Where? All I see are wild grape vines.’”
Galet pointed out that the vines were Vitis rupestris, one of the first rootstocks to help the French with the phylloxera crisis. When Morton asked how he was able to identify the American rootstock while speeding down the highway, he told her about ampelography. “It just hit my imagination that the personality of a vine is in its leaf,” she says. “That its whole history, who it is, is right there.”
As a student in the international viticulture program at Montpellier, Morton trained with Galet, and her knowledge of ampelography grew. When she returned home to King George, Virginia, where she’d planted a three-acre vineyard on her family’s farm, she quickly understood the usefulness of ampelography.
“I had ordered 10 different grape varieties that I thought were French hybrids, but when I got home, it looked to me like I had about 15, and one of them I recognized as Zinfandel,” Morton recalls. “Back then, the nurseries would sell you who-knows-what. In my Seyval Blanc, I had three different red grapes—but thanks to Pierre and his book, I was able to figure that out.”
With encouragement from American wine writer and historian Leon Adams and support from fellow viticulturists, Morton, who was only 25 years old at the time, convinced Cornell University to publish a translation of Galet’s guide. It took her six months to write the first sample chapter, as she struggled to accurately translate the complicated vocabulary of ampelography.
The most important thing to look at when trying to identify a grape vine is the growing tip, if there is one. “That’s the first thing I look for,” Morton explains. “Is it fuzzy? Is it hairless? Is it shiny? Is it covered in white cottony hair? The growing tip hairiness gets you somewhere as far as a starting place.”
Then, she observes the general leaf shape. “Does it have lobes or does it look like a shield? Does it have a lot of indentations or is it solid? Is the leaf thin or thick? French hybrids tend to have thinner leaves than vinifera.”
Third on the list of important attributes is the petiolar sinus, the empty space surrounding the stem of the leaf. Some sinuses are wide open, while others are so narrow they’re hardly noticeable. It’s possible to distinguish between Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon simply by comparing the petiolar sinuses.
Other characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include the lobes and teeth. If the leaf were a hand, the lobes would be the fingers. Some leaves have prominent lobes; other leaves have none. The teeth are the serrations on the outside edge of the leaf. Some are jagged and sharp while others are rounded.
Together, these clues help the ampelographer discover a vine’s identity. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon is known for having a downy growing tip, with a deep rose-colored margin. The young leaves are also downy and have a reddish color. The lateral sinuses (a sinus is the space between two lobes) of the leaves have overlapping edges that give the impression of being cut out with a hole punch. Morton’s nickname for the Cabernet Sauvignon leaf is “the mask” or “the monkey face,” because when holding a leaf by its stem, with the tip pointing upward, the leaf looks like it has two eyes and mouth.
In contrast, Chardonnay has a shield-shaped leaf, with sawblade-like teeth and an open petiolar sinus bordered by "naked" veins. Its young shoots have red nodes, a particularly distinctive marker.
Ampelography also provides information about clonal variation. “With some varieties, like Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, clonal variations are really easy to see,” Morton comments. “They have a lot of what we call morphological differences, so there are a lot of different leaf shapes and cluster characteristics.”
During the last decade or so, DNA marker technology (also known as DNA fingerprinting) has largely replaced traditional ampelography as a means of identifying grape vines. The process involves creating a DNA profile for the vine in question, using samples taken from young leaves or growing tips, then finding a match in a database of “voucher vines.” The Foundation Plant Services department at UC Davis has thousands of profiles in its database.
According to Dr. Carole Meredith, the grapevine geneticist who famously solved the mystery of Zinfandel’s origin, matching it to an identical Croatian variety, DNA testing has a couple of advantages over traditional ampelography. “DNA-based identification is objective,” says Dr. Meredith, who spent 22 years as a professor in the viticulture and enology department at UC Davis. “In traditional ampelography, the evaluation of some characteristics is subjective, and thus experts can and do differ.” Its other weakness, she says, is that the characteristics of some varieties vary by region and may not look identical, while DNA profiles are expressed as sets of numbers, which are easy to store and share.
Even so, Meredith believes there is a place for traditional ampelography in modern viticulture, explaining, “An expert ampelographer can walk through a mixed vineyard and identify the different varieties on the go, so traditional ampelography can give very quick answers.” DNA testing results can take up to three days, or longer.
Morton’s work as a vineyard consultant demonstrates this well. In one recent case, she visited a Syrah vineyard that included 15% white grapes. Rather than advising the owner to pull those vines, Morton identified the white variety and provided on-the-spot advice. “I was able to say, ‘That’s Muscat Blanc, and I think you should keep it because that will be very nice in your white blend.’ If I had found out that it was something like Roussanne, which doesn’t do well on the East Coast, I probably would have told them to pull it out.”
Her ampelography training also heightens her powers of observation. “You pick up on things,” Morton says. “You can tell if the vine had a frost or if there was herbicide drift—herbicide drift jumps right out at you because the leaves aren’t normal.”
While Morton’s book is now out of print, ampelography is still part of the viticulture program at UC Davis and Montpellier, as well as other academic institutions. While the course that includes ampelography is not required at UC Davis, many students opt to include it in their studies.
“It takes many years of practice to become proficient at ampelography, but all viticulturists and enologists greatly benefit from being aware of the leaf, cluster, and berry characteristics that distinguish varieties,” notes UC Davis viticulture professor Dr. Andy Walker, who teaches ampelography at the university. “When they finish the course, they can recognize 38 grape varieties, 14 rootstocks, and about 20 table grapes. My hope is that they know them well enough to help recognize mistakes and look for verification in books and through testing.”
Walker also sees ampelography as a way of getting students interested in grapes beyond Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. “It’s a step toward expanding their interest in varieties other than the top five and will encourage adoption of more diversity as we begin to cope with a changing climate.”
Morton herself teaches ampelography workshops at the Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville, as well as at St. Supéry Estate Vineyards and Winery in Napa Valley. St. Supéry’s hands-on workshops, held twice each year, are attended by sommeliers, retail wine buyers, and other wine industry professionals. “Ampelography is not really a topic in any wine certification course, and it is a wonderful skill for wine professionals to have as they visit vineyards around the world,” says St. Supéry CEO Emma Swain. “It’s another pillar of knowledge.”
Ultimately, for Morton, it’s about getting closer to the vines. “You can look at all the books you want, but being there is a whole different thing,” she explains. “Ampelography makes an intimate connection to the vine. It’s like being introduced to the author of a book, and there’s something really personal about that. You’re going to the source.”