There’s another interesting piece by Andrew Jefford in Decanter looking at a census of grape varieties. He states:
The plantings of the major varieties are steadily growing more dominant. Some 21 varieties accounted for half the world’s plantings in 2000; by 2010, that total had dropped to 15 varieties. The share of the top 35 global varieties rose from 59% of plantings in 2000 to 66% in 2010.
Should we be alarmed? On the face of this we are looking at a shrinkage of diversity. Increasing standardization.
But, like Jefford, I don’t think we need to be too worried. What makes wine interesting isn’t really the diversity of grape varieties that exists. This is a bit of a sideshow. A grape variety is like a musical instrument: we need a few of them to make a band, but not too many: it’s the score that counts. And the score is terroir.
Burgundy is a region dominated almost exclusively by just two varieties. But no one complains that it’s a boring region. The diversity and interest is in the soils and climate – the vineyard sites. And the soils are the dominant factor here in determining the quality of the wine.
If you have great vineyard soil and a suitable climate, then you just need one or a few appropriate varieties to express this. Of course, we are talking about high-end wine here. The varietal story is the most important, I guess, for cheap wine.
If you have boring soils or an unsuitable climate, you can plant the world’s most exotic varieties, rescued from extinction, but it doesn’t mean you’ll have interesting wines. Just because a wine is made from the last hectare of a specific cultivar in the world, it doesn’t make it a wine of merit. There may be some intellectual curiosity in knowing what that variety tastes like, but this raises another problematic question for students of grape varieties: just what does a specific grape variety taste like?
I could present you with two Syrahs—say, Alain Graillot Crozes and Clarendon Hills Astralis. Would you be able to recognize these as the same variety? It’s very hard to say exactly how a variety is supposed to taste when its capable of such different expressions in different soils and climates, and when subjected to different winemaking regimes.
So while there’s a geeky part of me that delights in the thousands of grape varieties grown worldwide, as long as we have a few dozen of the best available, we shouldn’t be in danger of running out of interesting wine any time soon, because it is the geography, not the grapes, that makes wine interesting.