According to a past Decanter wine magazine article nine grape varieties account for 90% of the world’s wine production. Considering that apparently 10 000 grape varieties exist that can be made into wine the question arises how did this situation come about? Is it good? And what can be done about it?
Bearing in mind that not all 10 000 grape varieties will make great wine it is obvious that the situation is on one side not positive as we are loosing a tremendous amount of viticultural diversity in this way. It reminds me of the story of a man that was trying to save England’s apples. There were originally 100 apple varieties in England but now only a few are sold in the UK supermarkets. He was preserving the apples by growing them in a private orchard. So perhaps by writing this article I am trying to do the same thing! Help preserve our viticultural legacy!
The question arises how did this situation come about? It came in part, in my view, through the hegemony and tremendous influence of certain grape varieties in France. There is no doubt that France is the most important and powerful wine producer on the planet and thus it is natural that many of its grape varieties would account for 90% of the world’s wine production. But why only certain varieties’ bearing in mind that France, too, possesses many grape varieties?
A lot of this has to do with the success and hegemony of certain wine regions and styles within France. If we look at Bordeaux, what could be a more important region both in France and in the world? So is it surprising that Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc should provide such an influence in France and world-wide? Chardonnay and Pinot Noir defined Burgundy and had tremendous influence world-wide as well as being the grape varieties that defined Champagne and formed the model for most sparkling wines in the New World.
Chenin Blanc forms the basis in the Loire and is very important in South Africa. Sauvignon Blanc is equally important in the Loire and Bordeaux and is now very important in South Africa and New Zealand. Shiraz originates in Persia but found its expression in the Rhone and then world-wide.
We have already eight grape varieties from France that helped define France’s viticultural identity, regions and went onto to define other countries viticultural identity. The reasons for this were the quality of the grapes, the way they suited and helped form the important regions in France and the very important reason that New World countries such as the US, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand had to import grape varieties into their countries and these were the varieties that came to dominate their viticultural landscape.
Just think of Shiraz in Australia, Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand and South Africa and Chardonnay in California and you get the picture.
Is this state of affairs good? It is good in that it has lead rise to the great wine regions of France and helped shape the map of the grape New World as well. It has helped to add stamp a state of definition to the world viticultural map. Nine grape varieties…Would the wine world cope with 10 000 grape varieties? But I cannot help think that we could do with a bit of viticultural biodiversity. Nine grape varieties dominating the world wine market can be boring, a bit repetitive. And there are so many grape varieties of interest world-wide that the world is missing out on. That is my gripe. We need to resurrect Noah’s Ark.
What can be done about it? There are many important wine countries with legacies of their own. The most important being Italy, Spain and Portugal. These countries possess a complex lattice of grape varieties worth exploring. Then there are lesser known countries such as Austria, Greece and even Lebanon. By supporting and drinking the native varieties of these Old World countries you will not only help turn nine grape varieties into 10 000. You will, as the consumer, help contribute to our world’s viticultural diversity and richness.