Friday, February 9, 2007

10,000 Grapes

~Ever hear of Croatina, Dornfelder, Durella, Dureza, Falanghina, Fer, Frappato, Kerner, Sercial, Touriga Nacional, Uva Rara, Vilana?
~They are the names of grape varieties, and they are used in wine production.
~If what I’ve been told is correct, the above dozen grape varieties represent .0012 percent of the wine grapes that grow throughout the world. In other words, there are about 10,000 wine grapes on this planet. Interestingly, about half that number is believed to grow in Italy alone—Ah, that Roman Empire.
~Ok, that many grape varieties yet the press seems to write about, what, maybe two-dozen of them. What’s that about?
~A great deal of the unheard-of grape varieties are used for blending, and that is one good reason for them having remained relatively unknown. At the same time, however, many seeming obscure grapes do get their own varietal label, and that is one good reason to take writers to task for not covering them. We have to actively seek the obscures because few wine critics ever mention them (truth be known, I’d bet that few critics even know about them, or worse, few care).
~Before the twelfth century human beings had the chance to play around with wild grapes and to create new grapes--they had 12 centuries plus about 60 more before Christ. The ancient Greeks and Romans probably did more to add to the grape stock in Europe than any other cultures before them. Some of those ancient grapes are still with us, and they are still in Italy and Greece; none are named Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir; grapes like these came much later
~Between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries a lot of viticultural activity took place, and a lot of new grape varieties had been introduced by breeders—Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon for instance. Wine had historically been a good economic force, but in Europe during these centuries it became a major force.
~Many of the new grapes were purposely designed for certain growing and climatic situations, and when the design worked it often worked quite well, developing great renown for many grape varieties. When Europeans began to codify regional winegrowing and winemaking regulations, part of the activity included demanding which grapes a region could grow and how much of the grapes were allowed in each blend.
~There is only so much ground within a region, so it stands to reason that regional grape variety selection had to be limited. It also stands to reason that as certain regions gained a higher level of fame, the grapes from those regions took on a higher level of importance. This is the simplest explanation for why, out of 10,000 grape varieties, only a choice few are well known.
~In the New World, where wine production has nearly 8,000 years to go in order to be as old as in the Old World, the initial desire was to produce wine in the image of our immigrant forefathers, so we homed in on the well-known grape varieties; we planted and we marketed them, and then our illustrious wine critics told us all about the few wines, over and over and over again.
~There’s not much wrong with the system, really. Some of the greatest wines in the world are produced from the well-known grape varieties. Yet, 10,000 grape varieties for wine! What a challenge and joy it would be to explore them all.
~Many times I talk about wine geeks as being a limited, focused species of wine phenomenon. Mostly, they are. But, there are some out there who reach beyond the “tried and true.” Just this morning a discussion ensued on one wine Web site that proved there are geeks and there are GEEKS. I was happy to read some of the comments people made about so-called obscure grape varieties.
~I will go out on a limb and say that within the 10,000 grapes in the world, there are many that can produce as great a wine as any of the “known” varieties. In fact, I’ll name a few: Aglianico, Albarino, Blaufrankisch (also called Lemberger), Falanghina, Mondeuse, Schioppetino, and yes, Grenache, especially as a dessert red wine produced in the south of France.
~Sure, most of these wines won’t command the prices that Pinot Noir, Cabernet, etc do…wait a minute, that’s a good thing. Better for us searchers.
~Here’s what I do about obscure wine:

First, I seek a wine retailer with a vocabulary that reaches beyond, “this is a popular wine,” and who expresses true interest in wine. If the retailer’s conversation doesn’t give away with whom you are dealing, the store selection will. I love standing in a retail shop that offers wines I have never heard of or seen before.
Second, I attend wine tastings offered by lesser known regions and producers.

Third, I like to get friends and wine groups together where we pick a theme and then go for it. When I am responsible for the theme, it’s usually obscure or at least out of the norm. I once presented a group with a five-course dinner from eighteenth century recipes; each course was served with a different Madeira wine, from dry to sweet—in that century Madeira was quite the rage.

Fourth, I don't spend my life seeking the greatest wine on earth. That kind of aspiration can never really be met, and while one spends valuable time trying to meet it, one misses so much.

~If you want to learn a lot more about this subject, get yourself the latest version of the Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Jancis Robinson. It is among the best laid out resources about almost anything connected to wine. One caveat: I don’t think Ms. Robinson includes all 10,000 grape varieties, but I never took a count to find out for sure.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
February, 2007. All Rights Reserved.

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