At the FT Weekend Festival I am hosting a wine tasting and make no apology for the fact that the topic is the same as last year’s: exotic grapes. This century the wine world has been transformed from one dependent on a handful of “international” (mainly French) grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay into one that seems increasingly fascinated by alternatives to them — the more local and obscure the better.
All over the world, vine growers are increasingly interested in regaining their viticultural heritage by recovering long-forgotten varieties that may not have been replanted after the late 19th-century scourge of phylloxera. Or they may have been abandoned because their yields were too low for the postwar era, when quantity so emphatically trumped quality. (This was true, for example, of Viognier, which was nearly extinct except for a few hectares in Condrieu in the northern Rhône as recently as the 1960s but is now planted so widely that it almost qualifies as “international”.)
Some of the most active vine recuperators are in Italy, whose regionally divided nature provides a particularly promising seedbed for those seeking novelty in the vineyard. The standard method is to examine local vineyards carefully, seeking to identify rogue vines. As often as not, some senior farmer can put a name to vines whose produce used to be anonymously blended in with a more established grape before the fashion for varietal diversity.
The Swiss were some of the first to dig into their viticultural history, reviving the likes of Petite Arvine, Amigne, Cornalin and Completer decades ago. Under the auspices of the dominant Plaimont co-op, the Gascons have assiduously done their bit too — with many years of vineyard research devoted to rehabilitating almost-extinct varieties such as Petit Courbu, Arrufiac and Manseng Noir that grew in vineyards long devoted to Armagnac production.
In Portugal, there are so many indigenous grapes to choose from that the need for further research has been less pressing, but Spanish vine growers have been hard at work recently widening the range of varieties in commercial production. An early example was the magnificent Godello. In the 1970s, there were only about a hundred plants left of this Galician variety that produces truly noble, age-worthy dry whites.
More Galician treasures have since been revived, although many of them, such as Merenzao, Carabuñeira, Sousón, Brancellao and Caiño Tinto, turn out to be Portuguese, or at least have well-known Portuguese synonyms. Juan García, also known as Mouráton, probably has the strongest claim to have its origins on the Spanish side of the border, but all are clearly more at home in this far north-western corner of Spain than any Cabernet or Chardonnay would be.
This is another reason for the growing admiration for indigenous varieties. Instead of being just another example of an international varietal, they tend to thrive in their native region, as well as producing truly local, distinctive wines. This presumably provided the inspiration for the Catalan company currently rebranding itself as Familia Torres when it put classified ads in local papers asking people to look out for unidentified vine varieties. Painstaking work in its vine nursery and microvinification lab has resulted in six new/old varieties, some of them so little-known that they are named simply after the commune in which they were found.
This sort of research is being undertaken in much of the Old World of wine, and even in some of the longer-established corners of the New World. Old vines of the variety known as Pais in Chile, one of the first European grapevines to reach South America, are currently enjoying a vogue — not just because of the seniority of the plants (associated with better quality wine), but because they offer characters and flavours quite different from the narrow range of international varieties that have until now represented Chile’s wine mainstream. This variety, originally from central Spain where it is known as Listán Prieto, is called Criolla Chica in Argentina and Mission in California. The success of Chilean Pais is already inspiring a re-evaluation of Criolla Chica across the Andes.
Australia’s wine history is shorter, so the focus is less on researching old varieties and more on identifying “alternative varieties”, generally vines that growers believe are more likely than most French vines to withstand the rigours of the fiendishly hot, dry summers that Australia has been experiencing. This has led to a massive upswing, despite the lengthy demands of Australia’s plant quarantine, in imports and plantings of a wide range of Mediterranean varieties. There are some wine bars in Melbourne where you can be hard pushed to find an old-school Cabernet or Shiraz.
Severe weather is widening the range of grape varieties from which wine is made today in other ways too. Czech and Slovak vine breeders have been developing crossings that will ripen early enough for their continental climate, while their counterparts in Minnesota and Wisconsin have come up with cold-hardy hybrids suitable for the harsh winters there. Brianna, La Crescent, Frontenac and Marquette have already proved popular with local wine consumers. But these hybrids don’t appear overnight. Brianna alone has 93 different parents, from seven different vine species in addition to Vitis vinifera, the most common species for wine grapes.
Furthermore, it takes three years to produce the first crop from just-planted vines, and many more before there is real concentration of flavour, so this is a gradual evolution of choice for wine drinkers. But there is already firm evidence on shelves and wine lists of the trend away from a handful of famous French grapes towards a multiplicity of varieties from a wide range of countries.
In 2012, with my co-authors Julia Harding MW and José Vouillamoz, I wrote Wine Grapes, a book about all 1,368 varieties we could find that were then producing wine commercially. We reckon a second edition assembled today might include at least 1,450.
Obscurity alone is not enough for a grape variety to be celebrated. The wine produced must be good and a positive addition to the conventional canon.
- Assyrtiko (Greece)
- Fiano (Italy)
- Furmint (Hungary)
- Godello (Spain)
- Malagousia (Greece)
- Pecorino (Italy)
- Petit Manseng (France)
- Savagnin (France)
- Xarello (Spain)
- Aglianico (Italy)
- Mencía (Spain)
- Nebbiolo (Italy)
- Nerello Mascalese (Italy)
- Touriga Nacional (Portugal)
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