Tue 10 Feb 2015

And Now For Something Completely Different: Lesser-Known Grapes


Getting to the root of the resurgence of interest in some of the wine world’s lesser-known grapes

Harvesting grapes at Vinkara vineyard, Turkey

Harvesting grapes at Vinkara vineyard, Turkey

The number of, and knowledge about, different grapes that are consciously made into wine has increased immeasurably in the last decade (thanks in the main to technological improvements such as DNA profiling). There are about 10,000 different varieties, members of half a dozen species; a mere(?!) 1,368 are involved in making wine of any commercial importance (according to Jancis Robinson MW who has co-written the most definitive guide to grapes in existence, Wine Grapes).

When we start to learn about wine it is often initially based around getting to know the characteristics of different grape varieties – what one tastes like compared to another and then what the same grape tastes like when produced in a different region or climate or when different vinification techniques are employed.

The grapes that start us out on our love of wine are inevitably the classic, or ‘noble’, varieties whose reputation was thus acquired because they are capable of making great wines and, usually, of being transported to other wine-producing regions from their home to make equally good wines worthy of international renown.

GrapesBut this approach to wine is relatively recent. When I first started out in the wine trade, there seemed to be far greater interest in property or domaine name and vintage, for example. I was always quite surprised that wine lovers who had been collecting claret for years had little knowledge or interest even in the grapes of their favourite wines. In fact the French regarded ‘vin de cépage’ as being rather inferior and they even legislated against putting the name of the grape variety/ies on labels.

New world wines put a change to this, and from the 1990s onwards varietal labelling became much more the norm. The French realised that they were missing out on potential customers so we started to see chardonnay and pinot noir on cheaper Burgundies and even basic Bordeaux sold as cabernet-merlot.

As a result there was both more interest in varieties by consumers and growers and then a degree of boredom struck… the so-called ABC effect (wine drinkers wanting ‘Anything But Chardonnay’!).

Winemakers started to look around them and show more interest in older vines. In Italy, for example, where they have always kept things local, there are about 380 varieties making wine in commercial quantities. And the more growers valued what was growing in their own back yard, the greater the realisation that some long-forgotten varieties of old were under threat of dying out, so there was a strong desire to resurrect old vineyards and keep old indigenous varieties for posterity. There has been a real passion for ‘heritage’ varieties and also a realisation that blending different varieties might be what gets the best out of your piece of soil rather than relying on one or two to interpret your terroir.

The revival of heritage varieties has also come about because today’s winemakers have realised that some older varieties fell out of fashion because they were low-yielding – those that survived were often planted in fertile soil so didn’t necessarily show the grape off in a good light. Today, where the emphasis is much more on quality rather than quantity, people are now realising the potential of yesterday’s forgotten grapes.

Grape Picking

In some ways we also have the Aussies to thank for the renewed interest in forgotten varieties. Newer wine-producing regions are not bound by laws or tradition to grow specific varieties; there’s still a drive to find the best grapes for your particular plot of land.

Today a younger generation of winemakers are much more wedded to the idea that wines are made in the vineyard not the winery. They tend to travel more widely too, giving greater opportunities to seek out unusual varieties and question what is grown where.

Curiosity may have killed the cat but it has revived the wine industry!

Joanna Goodman
News Editor

Find out more about some of the lesser-known indigenous varieties to be found on our List.

Categories : Australia


  1. Jeremy Watts says:

    We recently held a wine tasting using some of the wines listed in the Society’s latest “Off the Beaten Track” leaflet; It was a very interesting experiment with the Italian Teredolgo Rotaliano Riserva. Castel Firmian Mezzacorona 2011 coming out as the favourite (30/36). Second was the Uruguayan Atlantico sur Garzon Vineyard. Maldonado Marselan 2014 (25/36) and a long way behind was the French Marcillac Lo Sang del Pais. Domaine du Cros 2013.(11/36) Those comments that were repeatable were very enthusiastic and surprised over the Uruguayan wine.

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