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grape varieties

A short story about grape varieties

Let’s start with a bit of history

The vine is one of the oldest plants on earth. It probably appeared at the end of the Cretaceous era, over 65 million years ago.  It is thought that viticulture developed about 8,000 years ago with the very first civilizations of the Middle East, particularly in Transcaucasia, allowing the transformation of the wild vine, Vitis sylvestris[1], into a domesticated version, the one we are interested in: Vitis vinifera[2]. There are many other species, but this one gathers all the noble grape varieties cultivated today throughout the world and sought after for their organoleptic qualities.

And then some semantics

A grape variety is a type of grape. Each grape variety has its own characteristics, in terms of cultivation, quality, resistance (to growing conditions), sensitivity (to diseases) and aromas. The science of identification and description of grape varieties is called ampelography, formed from two Greek words: ampelos, the vine and graphie, writing. We have in France, great ampelographers: Pierre Galet (deceased in 2019), Jean-Michel Boursiquot of the University of Montpellier who are contemporaries, but also Victor Pulliat, who classified in the nineteenth century the grape varieties according to their precocity, Pierre Viala, often considered the father of modern ampelography, Louis Levadoux who in the middle of the twentieth century undertook to classify grape varieties by families according to their ampelographic similarity and whose more recent DNA research has often confirmed the accuracy.

A multitude of grape varieties

Before you continue reading, ask yourself a question; how many grape varieties are there in the world? This is a question I often ask and the answer is always very far from the truth: “about twenty, fifty, a hundred? “. In reality, there are nearly ten thousand! Even more extraordinary: over twenty-four thousand names are used in the world to designate these ten thousand grape varieties! The same grape variety can therefore have a different name from one country to another. This does not make things easy.

Let’s take a few famous examples: Zinfandel, a red wine grape variety widely grown in California, which for a long time was considered indigenous, until 1994 when a DNA[3] study confirmed what researchers already suspected, its identity with Primitivo from Puglia, as well as with Tribidrag, an old Croatian variety. Another example is Chenin blanc from Anjou, introduced in South Africa in the middle of the 17th century during the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which forced the Huguenots to flee to Protestant lands. Traces of its origin having been forgotten over the centuries, Chenin was called Steen and considered a South African grape variety (it is twice as present there as in France), until the 1960s when its identity was rediscovered.

More local: Malbec in the Southwest is called Côt, Cot, Pressac, Auxerrois and Malbec. All these at the same time! This makes things quite complicated but exciting!

How can such diversity be explained?

There are multiple ways of reproduction of grape varieties. First of all, grape varieties mutate (a word that is all too familiar nowadays). This happens when a plant produces a branch, a leaf, a fruit, different from the norm, an anomaly. This can give rise to a new variety. Pinot noir, for example, is a very old variety, whose presence in Burgundy is suggested as early as the first century[4] and over time, it would have mutated into Pinot gris which itself would have mutated into Pinot blanc. Meunier is a “fluffy” mutation of Pinot noir, so called for its downy leaf blade. Similarly, Lledoner pelut is a “hairy” version of Grenache noir, another grape variety with vast progeny.

Moreover, until the end of the 19th century, grape varieties were planted together in the vineyards, they lived side by side and reproduced among themselves. Thanks to this, many ampelographic families were born: the carmenets, descendants of the Cabernet Franc, the noiriens, descendants of the Pinot and the Gouais blanc[5], which would have given birth to the Chardonnay, the Gamay, the Melon de Bourgogne, to name but a few, the serines, linked to the Syrah. The most famous union is that of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, which probably took place spontaneously in the vineyards of the Médoc in the 17th century and gave birth to Cabernet Sauvignon, the most famous grape variety in the world. This discovery, made by researcher Carole Meredith of the University of California, Davis, changed the face of wine research in 1997. This makes Merlot its half-brother, born a century later.

The origin of Syrah, a great Rhone Valley grape variety with an exotic name, has been the subject of many legends. It is said to have come from Syria, or perhaps from Shiraz in Iran, or Syracuse in Sicily, and to have been brought back during the Crusades by wine-loving knights. In 1998, science revealed that it is indeed French and comes from a spontaneous offspring of Dureza noir, an old variety from Ardèche, and the Mondeuse blanche from Savoie. It has for brothers or sisters (as you wish), the Roussanne and the Marsanne. Such distinct varieties you may say, but in the same way that brothers and sisters are.

Today, when you walk through the vineyard, everything is in order, nothing sticks out, Merlot on the right, Cabernet on the left, and no flirt between them! Our winegrowers have become castrators. This transition from “mixed vineyards” to a defined order was born of the industrialization of viticulture after the great crises of the late 19th century. Powdery mildew, phylloxera and downy mildew occurred successively from 1850 onwards and required the use of rootstocks as well as the increasing and systematic use of sanitary treatments which led to a new and more “rational” organization of the vineyard.

What about science and origin of some grape varieties?

These crises have also opened up research into hybridization, i.e. the creation of varieties between two species of Vitis (interspecific hybridisation) or between two grape varieties from the same species of Vitis (intraspecific hybridisation). Interspecific hybridisation was born out of the urgent need to fight against phylloxera, a small insect that devastates our vines, arriving straight from the United States, and against which our European vines are not immune. Very quickly, it is figured that the American grape varieties, coming from other species of Vitis and responsible for the introduction of phylloxera in France, are also resistant to it. After having infested our vineyards, they will finally be the saviors. They are crossed with Vitis vinifera, taking advantage of the resistance of one specie and the quality of the other. Numerous hybrids were born from this research: Baco blanc (the only hybrid of this kind still authorised in France today), the Seibel, the Jacquez, the Vidal…

Intraspecific hybrids, have the ambition of transmitting to the new variety the cultural and organoleptic qualities of the two parents from which it will come. Unfortunately for our researchers, this exercise is often costly and time-consuming, and the results are rarely conclusive, as grape varieties, like people, transmit their qualities but also their defects to their offspring! A famous example is the South African Pinotage, conceived in 1925 by Abraham Perold and resulting from a cross between Cinsault, formerly called Hermitage in South Africa, and Pinot Noir. This grape variety, still today, divides consumers and producers, but is considered the South African grape variety “par excellence”. In France, we can mention the Marselan, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache Noir, which is quite successful in the Languedoc.

This multitude of grape varieties, sometimes from the same ampelographic family, has often led to confusion. Chile has, for years, exported shipments of Merlot to the four corners of the world that turned out to be Carmenère, a Bordeaux grape (another descendant of Cabernet Franc) introduced to Chile in the late 19th century. As for the South Africans, they thought they were introducing Chardonnay in the 1980s, during the “Chardonnaymania”, but in fact they introduced Auxerrois, a far less popular grape variety!

This incredible diversity is however threatened by a much less attractive fact: among this crowd of grape varieties, only about fifty provide 80% of the world’s wine production. This means that there is a risk (already underway) of impoverishment of the grape varieties. In France, the system of appellations of origin is in charge of protecting their diversity and their survival. Indeed, in order to benefit from a PDO, the producer must adhere to a strict set of specifications whose constraints relate in particular to the authorized grape varieties. Consumers, especially the so-called “Y”[6] generation, are showing a growing interest in “forgotten” grape varieties, an interest that is in line with the movement towards natural wines, biodynamic farming and wines that are more respectful of the notion of “terroir”.

The phylloxera crisis has complicated ampelographic research since some varieties did not resist and disappeared from the landscape. Let us hope that globalisation and the standardisation of tastes and palates will not endanger the rest!

Viticulture topic is provided on all of our specialized wine courses. Find all our wine courses here.

Article written by Annabelle Mispelblom Beijer, wine expert at WiSP


[1] From the latin sylva, the forest.

[2] That makes wine!

[3] Carole Meredith UC Davis.

[4] Columelle.

[5] Ancient grape almost extinct today.

[6] « Millenials » or « Generation Y » or « Gen Y » are the demographic group that were born between the 1980’s and the end of the 1990’s.

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