Agrippiotis to Zweigelt - Return of the Natives

Agrippiotis to Zweigelt - Return of the Natives

Doug Wregg, one of the UK's leading Natural Wine experts, explores the wine world's fascination with rare grape varieties. And why one of your new year resolutions should be to explore the extensive, exciting and sometimes tongue twisting world of native grapes!

I once tasted a Georgian wine that had over 400 grape varieties blended into it. If ever there was a declaration of the symbolic desire to preserve a multi-faceted grape patrimony this was it.

Symbolism is not only important – it often goes hand-in-hand with dedicated “grape-culture” rescue missions. Several regions throughout the world have spawned their own local grape archivists. In Gaillac, for example, celebrated vigneron Robert Plageoles notably grubbed up his Sauvignon Blanc vines a few years ago, replanting with various types of Mauzac (vert, rose & noir) as well as the indigenous Prunelart, Ondenc, Muscadelle, Duras and Braucol. The wines made from these varieties were (and are) not necessarily commercial, but then that was hardly his overriding concern. Plageoles was reacting to the fact that a region, rich in vinicultural heritage, that has been growing grapes since Roman times, had been virtually colonised by a single variety. Each grape variety that puts down roots restores the natural diversity.

Rare birds

Thierry Navarre, meanwhile, has resurrected the forgotten Oeillades and the equally hens-toothsome Ribeyrenc (also known as Aspiran) in his beautiful, organically-farmed vineyards in Roquebrun in southern France. He describes these as les cepages oublies. Over in the forests of the Sologne, arch-terroirist and rule-flouter extraordinaire Claude Courtois works with historic Gascon, Romorantin and Menu Pineau, but also composes secret field blends in his cuvées called Racines and Nacarat. If you ask which outlawed varieties might feature in these particular wines you will be met with the deadest of dead bats.

Grape patrimony is not always about teasing out and isolating the individual varieties but using them in conjunction with others to express a certain inalienable truth about the terroir.

The Savoyarde Gringet has been preserved for posterity by Domaine Belluard in Ayse, whilst on the other slopes of Mont Blanc the vine growers of Val d’Aosta and Switzerland are flying the flag for aboriginal grapes by continuing to making wines from Prié Blanc, Petite Arvine, Cornalin, Fumin and Humagne – to name but a few local denizens. In other regions, old treasures are being dusted off and unveiled again. Albariño introduced us to the charms of Galician wines, and further investigation has since revealed the identities of further intriguing local heroes – Loureiro, Treixadura, Caino Blanco (& Tinto), Albarin (no relation), Lado, Torrontes, Souson, Brancellao, Mencia and Godello. Some relatively commonplace, some rare, some singly, others in blends, their mere existence enhancing the reputation of the region for wine grape diversity.

Talented winemaker Panagiotis Papagiannopoulos works with native Greek varieties like Roditis, Mavro Kalavrytino, Agiorgitiko and Malagousia at Tetramythos.

Hundreds and thousands

It’s more than a numbers and variations game. In their definitive Wine Grapes encyclopaedia Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding & José Vouillimaz identify and detail almost 1,400 distinct grape varieties. But there are more than that. Italy claims 3,000 registered grape varieties, and, as for Portugal… Andre Dominé’s writes in Wine, 5th Edition: “Portugal is often described as the country with the greatest variety of grapes in the world–according to frequently quoted estimates, there are supposed to be around 500 of them. But because no one has ever counted them all and distinguished genuine varieties from regional synonyms, there has to be some doubt about this figure. Wine experts assume, though, that there are 250 to 300 genuine grape varieties.”

Georgia, meanwhile, boasts 540 grape varieties, 8,000 years of winemaking including the ancient tradition of making wine in qvevri. Some of these more obscure varieties may be a trifling footnote in the annals of wine encyclopaedias, but their continued existence serves to make us re-evaluate the historical, cultural, critical and commercial contexts in which grapes are grown. Georgia possesses a natural wine culture where diversity is cherished, but also where grapes are intended to make nourishing wine for the family table. This contrasts strongly with the strictly mono-commercial approach where the grapes are grown for the express purpose of making wines with a clear varietal identity.

The good, the bad and the ugly grapes

In the way that humans like to impute value to systems and impose hierarchies of taste certain arbiters have determined that some grape varieties are inherently more aristocratic than others. Hence, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay & Riesling have enjoyed noble repute, whereas, Carignan, for example, was for a long time judged to be a base grape only capable of making base wine. Associated with vatted plonk du midi, dismissed cursorily by famous wine writers as “a workhorse variety”; “not capable of greatness”; “should be grubbed up in favour of Syrah”; “the bane of the European wine industry” and “only distinguished by its disadvantages”.

Carignan - associated with vatted plonk du midi, dismissed cursorily by famous wine writers as “only distinguished by its disadvantages”, was truly one of the mal-aimés.

In fact, Carignan was (and is) peculiarly suited to the Catalan wine-growing country (and, more generally, to warm Mediterranean climates elsewhere). Hardy low-yielding bush vines with deep root systems penetrating the bare rocky soils yield grapes with the substance to make interesting, terroir-driven wines. In time, wine writers began to concede that Carignan was much more than a honest dobbin and was capable of producing splendid results in the right hands and with the right methods. There is a reason why native grapes flourish in certain climates.

Producers like Dominik Huber at Terroir al Limit in Priorat are showing the potential of 'humble' Carignan.

Bad appellations

The appellations, however, have yet to catch up with what’s going on.

Vin de France has (by default) become a means of protecting disappearing indigenous varieties that aren’t allowed in several of the AOPs. Whereas the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation may still sanction the full thirteen, in Jura, a wine made by Jean-François Ganevat, for example, with 17 historic local grapes may only be accorded humble Vin de France. In Corsica, meanwhile, Comte Abbatucci blends from some 15 indigenous varieties saved from abandoned vineyards. The grape and the wine is no less for not being granted AOP – what is surprising is that typicity and originality are not recognised by the authorities as the role of appellation is surely to defend the best of origin and that which is historically proven to work.

Varietal cults

Grapes are less important than the place in which the vines have their roots and the sensitive winemaking that brings out their flavour potential. One grape variety can draw on the energy of a locale and bring that to life.

Conversely, you can buy cheap white wines which claim to be made from Fiano and Greco, for example, and they will taste exactly the same as Cotes de Gascogne, or Pinot Grigio. The country, let alone the region of origin, let alone the varietal, is less important than the oenologist who can flatten anything to fit the price point. When yields are high, methodology is all important.

Increasing homogenisation means that grape distinctiveness is seen as less relevant than pleasing neutrality.

The vogue for trending varieties means that certain grapes gain favour and are found homes outside their natural habitat. New Zealand Albariño – check; Australian Assyrtiko – check; Chilean Riesling – check – yet when one returns to the origins of these varieties one understands that special climatic conditions and soil types are responsible for the unique flavours in the wines. Would Assyrtiko be so interesting if it were displaced from the volcanic ash soils of Santorini? Well, it would be different certainly.

Indigenous grapes, the channelling of terroir, espousing singularity and identity, the rediscovery of traditional techniques (of farming, of winemaking), all give colourful diversity to the often-monochrome world of wine where commercial relevance and reputation are continually bruited. The grape variety itself is one small element in a larger picture. Consider the efforts of some vignerons to replant on French rootstock. The reason? To attempt to rediscover how wines may have tasted before phylloxera. Respected, and linked to its place of origin, the purpose of the indigenous grape is more than a functional “varietal”, it is that which provides cultural variety, embodying the very specific DNA of the locale and the growing season.

If you you fancy exploring the extensive and exciting world of native grapes The Sourcing Table have got you covered from Agrippiotis to Zweigelt and many more in between. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

Les Cailloux du Paradis
Pheasant's Tears
Suertes del Marques