Thursday, February 11, 2010

More Variety In The Vineyards Than Ever?

For decades, wine writers have lamented the disappearance or at least the endangerment of grape varieties that have fallen out of favor among growers and consumers alike. Their pain has intensified in recent years as just a few varieties - cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot - have grown tremendously in popularity, often at the expense of varieties not as financially rewarding to farmers and vintners. At least, that's the prevailing perception.

Cory Cartwright of the wine blog Saignee is the latest commentator to weigh in on this issue. In this essay he argues that classic varieties are being marginalized and that biodiversity is being sacrificed by the rush to plant grapes that yield varietals that appeal to a global market that prefers safe standardized wines over releases that speak more of tradition and site.

His piece coincides with the release of a report on this past fall's grape harvest in California, referenced in an earlier post below. While that report again shows substantial growth in the crush of such mainstream varieties as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot, it also shows that the state's vineyards may be more diverse than ever. It lists 44 white-wine varieties and 73 red-wine varieties being grown about California. Several of them apparently had never before been listed, including gamay noir au jus blanc, gruner veltliner, ciliegiolo, albarino and something called fer servadou, a variety I'd never heard of. Their appearance doesn't necessarily mean that they were planted just within the past few years, but that their yield has grown so significantly that state and federal authorities are taking notice. And in that, wine consumers who relish the exploration of new varieties and new settings can find hope of any even more varied tomorrow.

Cartwright, incidentally, laments the tearing out of old-growth carignane in California while noting that the variety now is highly prized by a new generation of growers and winemakers. Apparently so. According to the crush report, 15,461 tons of carignane were processed this past harvest, up from 11,281 tons the year before.


  1. The exciting result of all this variety selection is that we may very well have the best expression of a specific grape in California than anywhere else in the world because it will ripen fully SOMEWHERE in this state.
    Love albarino, carignane and some of the lesser-known grapes. Wine can never becoming boring when all these profiles are available to us.

  2. I think the author has the wrong definition of biodiversity. It doesn't matter if you plant Cabernet or Pinot Grigio, it still all Vitis Vinifera, clearly a monoculture. Different varieties does not mean variation in the vineyard. Now if there was a thing called "shade-grown grapes", grown under a canopy of a forest, then you would have a biodiverse vineyard.

  3. Robert,
    No wrong definition. i'm just using EO Wilson's definition as a launching point into a greater discussion of cultural diversity vis-vis our artifacts, one of which is wine. I wasn't talking about genetic diversity so much as using that to talk about other types of diversity.

    Thanks for the writeup. I've enjoyed the blog so far. Keep up the good work!

    - Cory

  4. Thanks for broaching this subject. Varietal diversity is only sustainable through consumer demand. To create such a demand the industry must educate consumer's about such great opportunities.