Heritage Grapes: A Return to Diversity

The 20th century trend toward monoculture and industrial farming has touched nearly all aspects of the agrarian economy including viticulture and the wine industry. Fortunately, the citations and figures below may represent a high water mark as the forces for agro-biodiversity gain momentum and start to chip away at these startling numbers.

Out of around 30,000 edible natural species, just 30 crops provide for 95% of the entire world’s nutritional requirements. Of these 30, wheat, rice and corn provide more than 60% of the calories worldwide. (Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.Women: users, preservers and managers of agrobiodiversity, 1999 )

The Wine Mosaic site also states that out of the hundreds of grape varieties out there, only 20 or so are commonly used for winemaking throughout the globe, making up 80% of the world’s production of wine. (theacademicwino.com: 2013 Digital Wine Communication Conference Summary Part II: The Wine Mosaic, 2013)

Given these figures, it’s amusing to me how some in the wine trade are quick to dismiss the natural wine movement as a passing fad. In fact, the movement has been trending for more than a decade and during that time has been a contentious topic of discussion. When viewed from above, through a post-industrial lens, its growing appeal and gathering strength take on the aura of permanence.

It’s probably safe to assume that organic and biodynamic practices are here to stay. If, as some pundits predict, we are on our way to losing millions of repetitive and middleman jobs to self-driving cars and trucks and automated cashiers, then back-to-the-earth agriculture may be one of the few areas of future job growth. A return to the land is a very real option as our profit-driven culture continues to develop new ways to eliminate human labor. Short of government largesse or a livable minimum income for all, a healthy plot of land may be all that separates us from unemployment and poverty.

One of the other chilling effects of monoculture and industrial farming (aside from the poisons they employ) is the loss of cultural identity with respect to the food we eat. This is especially true in the United States where the slow erosion of cultural diversity is viewed euphemistically as assimilation and the loss of native foods as progress. Something similar can be said of our native and heritage grape varieties. Mundane and uniform flavors—the product of international varieties—crowd out the individual and unique. Industrial processes—designed to replicate the same, familiar flavors—displace the whims of vintage. The search for yield and profit—the mother’s milk of conglomerate ownership—willingly sacrifices artistry and authenticity. The natural wine movement is not only an outgrowth of organic and biodynamic trends but an important voice of repudiation and protest against the purely industrial. Rampant corporate investment in areas such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Piedmont and Tuscany warn us that monoculture is profitable; natural wine adepts, as champions of diversity, offer a compelling alternative.

In Venn diagram terms, the over-lap of the natural wine crowd with their peers in the local and organic circle of food production is the intersection where trends are born. The two camps share a cohort of partisans who vet what they consume and exercise their political clout by consciously and conspicuously choosing the most ethically derived products available. The engine of their personal empowerment is choice—and choose they do, often with manifestos in hand. The moral and ethical standards they employ—sustainability, authenticity, purity, and the humane treatment of workers, for example—are uncompromising. It should come as no surprise that the desire for authentic wine made from sustainably grown, indigenous grapes by artisan vintners should follow. If, as they say, what you choose to eat is a political act, then what you choose to drink is how you wash it all down.

The natural wine movement identifies with another, closely related trend: the primacy of genetic diversity in the world’s vineyards and by extension to sustainable farming. Even without official guidelines, natural wine adherents borrow a lot from the organic and biodynamic playbook. They insist that the soil be nurtured and enhanced in the production of wine and that the fruit harvested from it speak of its origin without subtraction or addition. Increasingly, vignerons are of a mind that native varieties are best suited to deliver that mandate.

In Switzerland, for example, we can choose from among the 20 cultivars that produce 80% of the world’s wine or we can drink the native wines made from completer, räuschling, rouge du pays (cornalin), rèze, lafnetscha or plant Robert with the absolute guarantee that each is made on a family farm in microscopic quantities. These once imperiled cultivars are now gaining momentum as viable choices for the critical drinker and an opportunity for the niche grower interested in distinguishing his offerings from the run-of-the-mill. Other countries offer their own options with similar guarantees. Part of the political act in choosing traditional grapes is the recognition that their tenuous existence is thanks only to the unsustainable forces of accident, benign neglect or lethargy. We can no longer depend on chance to preserve the diversity of our vineyards. It is through the virtuous circle of choosing small and local that we encourage the native and traditional—and in so doing, we get the sustainable to boot.

Several other benefits will accrue from increased genetic diversity and native products. Sensible levels of scale will be reasserted which encourages more direct to consumer contact. Closer contact means the consumer is part of the story and invested in the process. Increased diversity also places us nearer to remedying the commodification of wine and the manipulations necessary to produce an unrealistically cheap product. And in purely romantic terms, native grapes remind us of our cultural past by connecting our history to the land and what we drink. Finally, some of the answers to climate change may be found in the subtle interplay between cultivar and terroir. The natural adaptation of native plants over time would seem to offer the best antidote to climbing temperatures and radical changes in climate.

Despite all of the good being done, we are by no means out of the woods. One critical link remains to complete the circle. It’s ironic that wine and spirits are the only products we ingest that do not include a list of ingredients — German reinheitsgebot laws notwithstanding. Is it really in the best interest of wine producers to deny transparency? It appears so, given the rancor the suggestion causes. The necessary next step should be clear: it is no longer enough to be natural without transparency. Voluntary (to start) labeling of ingredients used during the wine making process should be adopted by all who position themselves as natural. It seems a distinct commercial advantage to do so and an important point of differentiation. Labeling comes without judgment but gives the consumer enough information to choose according to their own wishes and beliefs. In the end transparency is inevitable but by anticipating the trend we give fuel to the forces of choice.

For a sense of perspective, here are six important areas through which genetic diversity is strengthened. First, through the ongoing effort to study and preserve grape cultivars; second, through the study of local bio-types on a regional and culturally significant basis; third, through the search for unknown and identification of “lost” cultivars in existing vineyards; fourth, through the resurrection of extinct cultivars from extant genetic material; fifth, through consumer and trade education; and sixth, through the creation of new varieties better suited to existing terroirs and the shifting climate.

Each of these areas is briefly explored below. I have included links to each item to facilitate further study.

Preservation

The global approach to the preservation of grape biodiversity is best demonstrated by INRA (French National Institute for Agricultural Research) and its Herculean effort to relocate its so-called “Louvre of Grapevines”—the Domaine de Vassal—from its precarious beach-side location. At Vassal more than 7500 accessions (a single, collected variety or cultivar) from around the world are preserved for research and breeding. It is by far the largest conservator of grapevine genetic material in existence and it owes its continued survival to concerned vignerons, not-for-profit associations and the French government. Imminent eviction from its rented site has brought attention to its work and support from leading researchers and affected businesses. Dr. Carole Meredith formerly of UC Davis and co-owner of Lagier-Meredith Vineyards in California is particularly vocal:

“The collection is of the utmost value to the international grapevine genetics community. Although many countries have established collections of their own heritage grape varieties, the Vassal collection is among the oldest and best curated.” (From Nature, Vol. 506, Issue 7486)

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Other, more substantially funded bodies, doing similar work include UC Davis in California—in conjunction with the US Department of Agriculture—at both its National Grape Registry program and the National Clonal Germplasm Repository where the germplasm (all the accessions of a vine available for breeding) of different cultivars are preserved.

Every nation with a significant viticultural heritage has similar conservatories including Spain, Italy and Germany.

Identification & Reintroduction

On a smaller and distinctly local scale the Torres family of Spain, in association with INRA, has launched its own effort to identify and preserve rare Spanish varieties. In Spain, where the influences of monoculture are even more pronounced—80% of the area under vine is given to a scant ten cultivars—much of the heavy lifting is being done. Over the course of several years the Torres program has identified dozens of “lost” or unknown cultivars found in vineyards all over Spain. The characteristics of each is studied, made into micro-lots of wine, propogated and replanted according to the perceived promise of success. Several are considered worthy of expanded use.

After treatment for viruses selected varieties are planted in the Torres’ family vineyards in Penedès and Conca de Barberà. To date, four red varieties—Garró, Querol, Moneu and Gonfaus—and one white—Selma Blanca—have been incorporated into the Torres portfolio of blended wines. Further experimentation will take place to discern the suitability of each for individual bottling.

“Bringing back ancestral varieties is an exercise in viticultural archaeology to recover our heritage.  By returning to the past and reviving the varieties our great-grandparents used, we can look to the future and find the kind of authenticity that will result in unique wines that are truly special and cannot be made the same way anywhere else on earth.”  Miguel Torres Maczassek

Implicit in this statement is the recognition that native varieties adapted over time to the climate and terroir of a particular region may be the best answer to the issues presented by global warming and the unsuitability of some international varieties to a changing local climate.

Specialization

Sometimes the trend is more inward looking and focused as is Donnafugata‘s zibibbo (muscat of Alexandria) initiative on the Sicilian island of Pantelleria. Here the focus is on intra-varietal diversity (the study of one cultivar and its bio-types) crucial to the historical and cultural identity of a given region. Disparate bio-types of zibibbo from around the Mediterranean are planted on a common plot for study with the goal of identifying those which offer the best organoleptic qualities, disease resistance, drought tolerance and other factors of distinction.

Switzerland’s Conservatoire Mondial du Chasselas is likewise dedicated to intra-varietal diversity. There nineteen of the most promising clones of chasselas are planted in the village of Rivaz—in the heart of Lavaux—in an effort to improve the quality of the wine and as a plan of attack against global warming by identifying those clones best suited to warming temperatures.

Resurrection

Historians, scientists, archeologists, ampelographers and viticulturalists are hard at work in Lebanon and Israel to resuscitate the cultivars in existence when the apostles and Jesus walked the earth. Through the scientific techniques of 3-D imaging, laser cameras and DNA sequencing, grape seeds recovered from archeological sites can provide clues as to which grapes were used for wine and where they might have been planted. White varieties like marawi and dabouki and reds like zeitani and balouti seem to show the most promise for making world-class wine and have been in existence for millennia.

Education

Rather than outright preservation and curation other entities are attempting to educate the public and the industry about the need for grape biodiversity. The Wine Mosaic, a French non-profit advocacy group, and its concept of “vinodiversity”— dedicated to protecting and promoting original grape varieties of the Mediterranean—seeks to influence through education. It proposes a clearinghouse “network of researchers and ampelographers, journalists and bloggers, producers, distributors and sommeliers, nurserymen, consumers and wine lovers” armed with the tools to promote and sell authentic wines from historical or traditional grape varieties. It engages the public at seminars, trade shows, conventions and lectures, and numbers among its members wine experts and wine celebrities.

The RAW WINE Fair brings the message directly to the consumer through its three-city tour of natural wine festivals. Each year thousands of wine fans and professionals flock to tastings in Berlin, London and New York to taste through a representative sampling of some of the best natural wines from around the world. The principal issues of organic and biodynamic farming are addressed and transparency is advocated for as the ultimate source of useful information for the consumer. This is truly an effective boots-on-the-ground approach with the potential to reach millions in a short period of time.

Any number of other venues—natural wine bars, restaurants, shops and even newsletters—offer information and the opportunity to taste great examples from anywhere in the world. Many of them from native and heritage grapes.

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Creation

Most interesting perhaps is the landmark work of Randall Grahm in “bringing sexy back” to his Popelouchum vineyard in Central California. His theory is that 10,000 genetically diverse vines (vinifera vines crossed with three dozen or so parents thus creating new varieties) presents the best opportunity to create a true vin de terroir. This incredibly sophisticated project proposes that terroir is best expressed through truly native grapes born from vines that are created in situ. The sexual reproduction of Popelouchum’s vines differs from massale selection or clonal selection in that each new offspring is genetically different from the next. Each vine will have the opportunity to flourish or wither on its own and perhaps in the process best define the perfect variety for the terroir. At some future date a massale selection of the strongest vines is in the cards. A Darwinian approach to viticulture so to speak.

Even though this project hurries along the trial and error process endured by many centuries-old terroirs, it is unlikely Mr. Grahm will see the final results of his so-called life’s work.

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Courtesy: Popeluechum.com

Conclusion

Natural wine, organic and biodynamic agriculture, heirloom and native varieties and transparency in labeling all play a part in the paradigm shift now underway. Individually they are incomplete and insufficient. As one, they offer multiple benefits that enhance the planet, respect the consumer, advance the art of winemaking and may even influence the course of agriculture. It’s time to stop belittling this trend. Now is the time to embrace it.

 

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