Wondering about the marvels of Malvasia Preta or the magic of Moschofilero? New World expressions of these Old World grape varieties are just a few years away. Foundation Plant Services (FPS), part of the University of California at Davis, recently released disease-free cultivars of these and more than 20 other vines from Greece, Italy, Austria and France (not to mention a couple new hybrids from the United States). Although it's one of three operations in the country that has the proper permits to bring new grapevines stateside, FPS is responsible for 95 percent of those imports, making it a valuable but little-known part of the American wine industry.
“There needs to be a balance between getting new grape cultivars and clones to our industry as quickly as possible while also ensuring that we don't bring exotic pests and diseases into California,” said FPS executive director Deborah Golino, who announces the approved varieties each fall. “We are able to bring in grapes from all over the world, screen them for disease, and make sure that, when released, they are as sustainable and productive as possible.”
Darrell Corti, who's been selling wine out of his family's Corti Brothers fine grocery store in Sacramento since 1947 and is a champion of lesser-known varieties, calls the work very important. “This is instead of people bringing in what are called 'suitcase clones,' which are in fact very terrible, because you never know what you are bringing into the country,” he said, noting that phylloxera ravaged Europe in the late 19th century when people brought vine cuttings back from America. “You can ruin the agricultural economy of a country that way.” Golino reported that 75 percent of what comes to FPS has viruses.
The released cultivars will next go to nurseries to be propagated and then be sold to interested vineyards. The best-known variety is Sicily's Nero d'Avola, which FPS research associate Nancy Sweet said has been requested by winemakers repeatedly. Other varieties include Vespaiola (a white from Italy), Malvasia Preta (a black Portuguese grape used in Douro blends), and Zweigelt-rebe (a red from Austria). Greek imports include Moschofilero, Fileri and Assyrtiko. FPS also released new cultivars of more familiar grapes such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo, as well as some American crossbreeds, including Triplett T182-4 (a mix of Malvasia Bianca and Colombard) and Triplett 30-47 (a mix of Ruby Cabernet and Calzin).
Increased diversity will only help American vintners, believes Corti. “What we can do is expand the palette of grape varieties that we currently have in California,” said Corti. “Lots of varieties that come from Greece have now been released by FPS, and those varieties could probably find a very good home in the Central Valley, where it's very warm. Assyrtiko could make absolutely smashing wine.”
Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non has often planted and tried new varieties obtained from nurseries affiliated with FPS, from Touriga Nacional to Petit Manseng. "Variety is the spice of life as the saying goes. California is a large place with many macro and micro climates and soil conditions, so surely many different grape varieties could make great wine if in the right hands," he said. "They are only odd to those who don't know them. Once, not even all that long ago, Syrah and Grenache were considered rather unusual in California."
Louis Robichaux — Highland Village, Texas — December 7, 2011 3:30pm ET
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