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Saving the Wine World's Unheralded Grapes

Hundreds of varieties face extinction; researchers work to protect and promote

Suzanne Mustacich
Posted: July 22, 2013

“Life is too short to drink the same wine,” said Antonio Graca, enologist and head of research and development at Portuguese producer Sogrape. True, but while wine lists are full of interesting varieties, there are plenty of others most wine drinkers never see.

Hundreds of grape varieties are at risk of disappearing, according to an international group of wine experts who have banded together to form an organization called Wine Mosaic. The group’s goal is to save rare indigenous wine varieties from extinction by financing research and conservation, sharing information across borders, improving the image of heirloom grapes and encouraging adventurous wine drinkers to broaden their palates.

It’s ambitious. “My dream is that in 2015 we hold a tasting of wines made from 1,368 varieties with 1,368 people attending the tasting,” said Jean-Luc Etievent, Wine Mosaic president.

The group held its first think-tank meeting in Porto, Portugal, in early July, pulling together researchers, winemakers and marketing experts. A preliminary study presented by French researcher Alain Carbonneau, director of Montpellier’s IHEV wine and vine institute and a Wine Mosaic vice president, revealed his estimate that 155 Mediterranean varieties are planted on less than 24 acres, putting them perilously close to extinction. Another 200 regional varieties have grown increasingly rare, with fewer than 250 acres planted.

Preserving rare grapes is not just a matter of variety on wine-store aisles. Recent DNA research has shown that unusual and unknown grape varieties provide clues to wine history. They also offer researchers a genetic toolbox for overcoming challenges of climate change, vine disease and changing consumer tastes. “It’s important to keep them—indispensable,” said researcher Antero Martins, who was recently awarded the Order of Merit for Agriculture by the Portuguese president for his work studying and preserving grape varieties.

The reasons for the decline are varied. The devastation of phylloxera wiped out many varieties at the end of the 19th century, and even more disappeared in the last decades of the 20th century when indigenous grapes were replaced by more marketable international varieties.

“Vignerons had old vines of Carignane and Cinsault, but replanted with other varieties like Syrah,” said Isabelle Pangault, technical marketing manager for Vignobles Jeanjean in France’s Languedoc region. “Today Syrah has 10 times the vineyard area as it did in 1979. In the same time period, Carignane lost 143,000 hectares. It went from 43 percent of the Languedoc to 13 percent. We also lost the clones.”

It’s the same story throughout many regions, but Martins believes it’s not too late. “I’m not a pessimist. I think the grape varieties are in the vineyards. Their morphology makes it difficult to distinguish them—they might look like another variety.”

The key is to save the grapes, knowing that their usefulness might not reveal themselves until much later. “In conservation, we don’t worry about whether or not they have an immediate use. There will be a time in the future when we will find a use,” said Martins.

While Portugal runs one of the best grape variety conservation efforts, most researchers and vintners are left to their own initiatives, often working with scarce funding and apathetic growers. Michel Grisard, a winemaker in France’s Savoie and champion of indigenous varieties from the Alps, said that the very old vines were often found in isolated areas and the winegrowers weren’t particularly worried about losing the grape’s genetic heritage.

In some cases, the local residents don’t even realize they have wine grapes. “I would see a village in the mountains and go there. We might find the grapevine growing in someone’s courtyard,” recounted El Heit Kaddour, an Algerian agronomist and researcher.

Working with Carbonneau’s team in Montpellier, Kaddour said his group has identified 53 unique ancient Algerian grape varieties using 20 DNA markers. “The villagers asked what we were doing. When they learned that their grapevine was unique in the world, they were so proud. They were protecting our national heritage without even knowing it.”

While many of these grapevines will never make it onto a wine list in New York, Wine Mosaic hopes to encourage winemakers to have fun with rare and unusual varieties that will appeal to wine lovers in search of authenticity. Working with three heirloom varieties found in abandoned vineyards and identified by the Marsala Institute, Patricia Toth, winemaker for the Sicilian winery Planeta, says they grafted the vines last year. “It’s a beautiful option to recreate an ancient wine,” said Toth. “We are making a wine that was exported to the royal court during Caesar’s time.”

In Tuscany, Frederico Staderini is thought to be the only producer working with the ancient, near-extinct variety Abrustine, which he planted on 2.4 acres in 2003. “In 2006, I produced the first wine. It’s a deep, rich color with a highly defined spiciness,” said Staderini, owner of Podere Santa Felicita and a consulting winemaker. “It’s very complicated to sell in Italy, because it does not match what they expect, but I sell it easily in Japan and Hong Kong, where there is no preconception.”

While Staderini was excited to work with an ancient variety, he chose it for practical reasons related to his terroir. “I had struggled with the environment. It’s a late-ripening valley where you run the risk of moldy, unripe grapes with harsh tannins. So I chose a variety that is rustic, with small berries with loose clusters that won’t be affected by mold in the rain and fog.” Wine Mosaic members say that pairing the rare or obscure varieties with the right terroir is key to giving the grapes the best chance of pleasing consumers.

Mahesh Lekkala
Livingston, NJ, USA —  July 25, 2013 7:26am ET
Dear Suzzane,
Thanks for aninteresting article on grape varietal extinction.
I think the key is to educate the consumers to try and have fun with
Different grape varietal's rather than drinking the sane wine that
They are accustomed to. This will inturn create a demand and stop
The vignerons in replanting them with popular grape varietals.
On the other hand it's a shame that the producers are replanting cinsault and carignan with Syrah, as the consumers really don't look into the actually blend of grape varietals in a Rhone Valley wine.

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