Save the Indigenous Grapes
We all need to support indigenous vines
I was standing next to a grape grower in Alsace, looking at rows of one-year-old pinot gris vines.
“You know there used to be sylvaner here, and old vines at that,” he said with a touch of remorse in his voice, as we checked out the vines.
At that point, I had been in the region for a week and was getting a pretty good feel for the terroir, so I asked him if this was the right place for pinot gris. “No,” he said, rather emphatically. “It’s for sylvaner, maybe riesling.”
So why did they rip out all those old vines, only to replace them with ones that won’t grow as well?
“You lose money growing sylvaner,” he said. “Nobody wants it.”
Well, I do. In fact, I prefer sylvaner to most inexpensive rieslings that are being produced in Alsace these days. A good sylvaner is fresh, aromatic, mineral and doesn’t cost a fortune. What’s not to like?
The Decline of Indigenous Vines
Unfortunately, what is happening to sylvaner is also happening to other indigenous varietals around the world. Old-vine carignan in the Languedoc and Roussillon has been ripped out of its prime planting zones and replaced by syrah. Sauvignon blanc is replacing assyrtiko in Greece.
I could go on. The list is long and littered with dead vines.
Why is this happening? Well, it’s kind of our fault. As more and more people start buying and drinking wine, especially here in North America and other “non-wine” cultures, many of the traditional wine-producing countries want access to these thirsty markets. Wine is big business, after all. And which is the easier sell? Carignan or cabernet sauvignon? Catarratto or chardonnay? Mencía or merlot?
It’s understandable that wine consumers stick with the tried and true. Wine can be confusing and sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and syrah are known commodities. The critics rave constantly about them, your friends bring them over for dinner and winemakers seem to love making them. Why even bother trying a sylvaner or an assyrtiko, a graciano or a grechetto?
Well, I can give you two reasons and both have to do with the quality of the wine in your glass.
Grape Diversity is a Good Thing
No. 1? Diversity.
In some cases, replacing these vines made sense and made for better wine.
But in most cases, winemakers have told me that it is simply a question of economics. They can get more money for wines made with well-known grapes, even if the quality isn’t as good.
In many European countries, wine grapes have been grown for more than one thousand years. During that time, certain vines have become established — some by trial and error, some simply because that’s where they were planted. And they have adapted perfectly to their terroir.
One needs only look at how the assyrtiko grapes on the Greek island of Santorini are grown. Assyrtiko has been grown on the island for thousands of years. Because of the constant wind and sand, the vines are grown close to the ground, in round baskets that look like bird’s nests, with the grapes protected on the inside of the basket. Despite the heat, these vines are perfectly adapted to the volcanic soils of the island, and produce high-mineral and high-acidity wines. It is not simply about the right vines in the right place; growing techniques have certainly helped.
This is not to say that you can’t grow great chardonnay in Greece, cabernet sauvignon in Tuscany, or syrah in Sicily. I have tasted some good examples of these wines, but there is already an abundance of them on the market. Do we really need more chardonnay? More cabernet?
And these wines are often not as interesting as the wines made with the indigenous grapes of the region.
I get really excited when I drink a Greek wine made with malagousia, a carignan from the Roussillon or a coda di Volpe and falanghina wine from near Naples, Italy. And so should you.
These are some of the most colourful threads in the tapestry that is the world of wine. Part of its beauty is the diversity. It’s about tasting the culture and history of an area as much as the wine itself.
Indigenous Grapes Allow for Greater Selection
And then there is grape selection.
Our penchant for only drinking the best-known grapes will affect the future not only in Europe, but the new world as well. When winery owners and winemakers are looking at what grapes to plant, they look at what sells, of course. And this is often at the expense of what might be the best grape choice for the soil and climate of the region.
Take cabernet sauvignon in Chile. Cabernet represents more than one-third of all vines planted in the country.
But when I judged at the Chilean Wine awards last January, it was far from my favourite grape. Chile was initially planted in the 19th century with Bordeaux varietals like cabernet sauvignon and merlot, not because of any analysis of soil and climate, rather because the winery owners wanted to produce “fine wine,” and Bordeaux at the time was considered the most prestigious wine-making region in the world. The reality is that cabernet only really produces great wines in a few specific regions.
So what rocked my glass? Three of my five favourite wines were made with old-vine carignan, sourced from the Maule region. Most were dry farmed, grown as bush vines and, when compared to similarly priced cabernet, were far more interesting.
But when I asked why there isn’t more carignan being made in Chile, the answer was always the same. “Who would buy carignan?”
Support Indigenous Grapes
We see that attitude here with our own Canadian wine industry. At the recent Canadian Wine Awards, I cannot tell you the number of disappointing cabernet sauvignon and merlots that I tasted, or how many borderline syrahs were entered.
But I also tasted a fantastic tannat from Osoyoos and gamay from Niagara.
Who knows what other grapes might be better options?
The fewer grape varieties are planted, the less diversity in flavours, aromas and textures we will find in our wines. How can we save the lesser-known grapes of the world? Critics must talk about them. Wine advisors and sommeliers must be more informed, and everyone must take more chances when we buy wine.
Try something new every one out of three wines you buy. Drink a grape that you never have tried before, from a country that you have not explored. If we all do our part, we will drink better wines and we will do a great service for future generations of wine lovers.
Want to wine made from indigenous grapes? Here are 10 to consider.