Grape varieties: ABC or alfa to omega?

A recent Facebook exchange with fellow blogger Peter Kupers sparked some thoughts. The exchange was about fer servadou, a grape variety native to the South-West of France, that also goes by the names of “mansois”, “braucol” and “pinenc”, depending on the region and AOP. Peter called it an “obscure” variety, to which I reacted that “obscure” was hardly the word for a variety that is well enshrined in at least a handful of AOPs (Gaillac, Marcillac, Madiran, to name the most important ones). I had to admit, though, that there are only a few hundred hectares planted with fer servadou, which, in a country with over 750.000 HA of vines is indeed rather insignificant. This website lists it as a “modest” varietal (a term that I much prefer to “obscure”, in any case).

This brought me to the question of (grape) diversity in the wine world, and whether wine drinkers care about it at all. Peter’s point was that your average wine consumer has almost certainly never heard of fer servadou, and would most likely favour a bottle of good old cabernet sauvignon when faced with the choice.

Bars and supermarkets obviously tend to reflect this situation. At a small new year’s gathering with colleagues this week, the wine choice in the pub we went to was unsurprisingly limited to two whites and two reds.  Sauvignon blanc and chardonnay for the whites, merlot and cabernet sauvignon for the reds…

Grape-hc-cConsidering that the authoritative book “Wine Grapes” (Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz) lists over 1.300 varieties, from international stars to little-known indigenous grapes, the poverty of the offer is in some sense remarkable. It therefore comes as no surprise that there are dissident voices. The most famous one, alluded to in the title of this post, is the US-based “Anything But Chardonnay” movement, reacting against the lake of dull, uninteresting chardonnay wine that was flooding the American market. However, the proposed alternatives are hardly mind-blowing either: “Anything but Chardonnay emphasizes other viable choices to expand the selection of white wines, especially in the summer, including: Sauvignon Blanc,Riesling, Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris), Chenin Blanc, Viognier, among others“.

An interesting and funny initiative that I recently came across is the Wine Century Club. Membership of this club is only possible if you solemnly pledge to have tasted at least a hundred different grape varieties (in fermented form, that is, and either as a monovarietal or in a blend) – the sole punishment for lying about this being the wrath of Bacchus himself. I checked for myself (what did you expect?) and ended up just short of 200… which means that even for a regular and relatively curious taster like myself, there remains a bewildering range of grapes that I have not tasted and probably never will taste – Italy alone has over 300 native varieties! Moreover, looking at my private cellar, I confess I do not always practice what I preach: the usual suspects tend to dominate…

The question is how much of a problem that is. One could look at it from another perspective, and hypothesize that if certain grapes are overlooked, there may well be a good reason for it. Maybe we’re not missing out on much. Do they really have such a unique taste profile? Besides, terroir and vinification ensure a lot of diversity, even with a limited variation in grapes. To take the example of Chardonnay: not only does it vary enormously according to soil and climate, but the winemaker’s choices can produce anything between a crisp, mineral Chablis-style and a bold, fat and oaked style – which has led some to the conclusion that the ABC era is over.

On the other hand, the search for “forgotten” grapes is interesting in its own right, as part of the movement towards more food diversity and “slow food” (think of the forgotten vegetables that are reappearing these days), and we should not let mass market imperatives drive our taste. This being said, the quest could even prove to be an economically useful one, bearing in mind the by now undeniable reality of climate change: varieties that were grubbed up before because they ripened too late or had low sugar content, are being rediscovered. Petit verdot is a point in case in Bordeaux. Likewise, Torres is reviving indigenous varieties in Spain to anticipate rising temperatures. One wonders what regions like Burgundy, which is largely based on two monovarietals, will do when it gets hotter…

As with all things living, diversity is the best option we have, and we should cultivate it as much as we can. But, as wine lovers, we should also not despair about what we will most likely miss out on, or feel guilty when we enjoy the odd glass of chardonnay or riesling (apologies to fierce fanatics of the latter for putting these two on the same line).  Cheers!