Grape varieties and the diversity of wine

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.

8 comments to Grape varieties and the diversity of wine

  • Jamie, I beg to differ with both yourself and Andrew Jefford, both of you writers who I respect and admire and read regularly. I think that we should all be alarmed, worried and ashamed. Loss of diversity is loss of diversity, no matter what the justifications you put forward. We ourselves, the world in general, our children, and future generations will be all the poorer for this loss of diversity – even if it has no impact on the quality or interest value of the the wine at the present time.
    And I beg to differ on that score too. I feel that in your post (and in another recent one too) you have significantly underplayed the importance of variety. I don’t believe that it’s just a sideshow, or a geeky issue of academic interest only. Variety is of equal importance to the soil and the climate, and the hand of the winemaker for that matter. I don’t think the musical instrument analogy is at all appropriate here. If Burgundy is interesting with only two main varieties, would it not be even more interesting if other varieties were also used to express her terroirs? Lastly, I could present you with two white wines of different varieties from vineyards only a few kilometers from each other that are as different as chalk from cheese! I’d say it was the geography AND the grapes that make wine interesting.

  • I’m going to agree with Fabio. Setting aside that terroir is so much more that soil and climate (both of which change with time) you have popped down an infinite rabbit hole here, Jamie, when you make the assertion that “…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.” What do you mean by “best”? Who are you to judge?

    When you say loss of diversity is no big deal, you are depriving all our descendents of the right to make the same sort of short-sighted judgement as to what’s “best.” I don’t share your apparent sense of omnipotence or certainty.

    But I believe you have missed out on the actual story here. These statistics can be interpreted without suggesting an irreversible loss of diversity. It is the plonk end of the spectrum that is driving the apparent dominance of a few varieties, as more acreage is planted to what is currently fashionable in the broadest commercial market.

    Terroir is as much about grape variety as it is about soil and climate. I don’t see a lot of Burgundian climats being replanted with Syrah, or Cabernet going in on the slopes of Brunello, Montefalco, Monte Vulture, etc. All around me I see growers and winemakers passionate about preserving heritage and increasing diversity, not the opposite. Here in California the annual Grape Crush Report gets a little thicker every year as more varieties are being planted in more areas. Guys like Randall Grahm are even attempting the Quixotic task of producing “vins de terroir” from new plantings of grapes grown from seed. Really, I think you need to get out more.

  • I agree with you, if the growth was charted it would show mostly new world plantings of the major international grapes, I wouldn’t expect a company to make an strong economic case for several hundred ha of furmint or garganega to it,s board. Outside of the some loss of old vine everything in the south of France, the pulling of vines didn’t seem to hurt the market for their wines.

  • So Burgundy can only solo or duet? I’m with Fabio – maybe Burgundy would be more interesting, more expressive of the full range of its terroir prospects, if they had more varieties.

  • Some great comments. You are forcing me to reconsider my position.

  • Patrick

    I agree with the dissenters – if you took that approach to its extreme, growing one grape in different terroirs, where would that leave variety/diversity and, ultimately for us wine geeks, interest? Reducing the dimensions of diversity will reduce diversity. Its a bit like saying I’ll only paint with half ther spectrum, but because I can paint in watercolours/oils/spray/papiermache and on paper/brick/stone/glass I’ve still got diversity… its true, but less diversity.

    Overfocus also leads to potential overreliance on single grapes and the danger of disease risk…

  • One of the great things about wine is its diversity. We should celebrate it and nuture it.

  • Nick

    I think for the most part I agree with Jamie – the vast majority of drinkers will not ‘run ou’ of interesting wines, but on the other hand I’d cite the example of Malbec, which could have died out almost entirely if not for Argentina. There it got uprooted in huge quantities in favour of ‘mainstream varieties’ and if it were not for the work of pioneers like Catena et al, well who knows? Sure we might still have some of it coming out of Cahors, but I do think its important that so-called lesser grapes are not forgotten, or we could miss out on a dynamite combination of grape and terroir like in Argentina.

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