What's the most widely planted grape in the world?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Recently I overheard two sommeliers argue about which was the most planted grape in the world. They mentioned Airen for white and then the debate started for reds. One said Merlot and the other said Grenache. I have to decide the winner and prize. Can you help?

—David G., Edmonton, Alberta

Dear David,

As interesting as this question is, it's difficult to get completely accurate, comprehensive information about worldwide grape acreage figures, because not every wine-producing country reports the same sets of data about its acreage and varieties. Patrick Fegan, author of The Vineyard Handbook, who has tracked the available data that can be confirmed, says, "As far as I know … the most widely planted grape in the world in Thompson Seedless. Just from the known data, there are over 880,000 acres planted. This counts all the New World countries plus Europe, Turkey, India, China (definitely under-reporting), and parts of the Middle East. I know that it is also widely planted throughout the Islamic world and the 'stans' of the ex-Soviet Union, but cannot get confirmable data on that. The final figure is most certainly over 1,000,000 acres."

If you think that's a trick question because Thompson Seedless is primarily a table grape, not a wine grape, Fegan points out that "Ten to thirty percent of California's Thompson Seedless is crushed annually for wine and brandy. The situation is similar in Australia and South Africa."

What about grapes that are used only for wine? Fegan replies, "The Airen of Spain has the most acreage and is used to produce boatloads of cheap white wine. But it is also used to make a ton of brandy. I tally just over 756,000 acres of it."

What about fine wine? "I understand that there is a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon, Syrah, etc. (i.e. "noble varieties") going into the ground in China, and to a lesser degree, India. But there are no reliable tallies available. So, the short answer is, there is no definite top grape known yet. However, when I tally everything I have that's solid, the most widely planted wine grapes are Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon by far, with both weighing in -- coincidentally -- at just over 721,000 acres (Cabernet Sauvignon has the edge). It slacks off to just over 500,000 acres each for Tempranillo and Grenache Noir," says Fegan.

—Dr. Vinny

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