Producers and consumers of wine historically spent little time worrying about the grape varieties of the wines they made and drank. Europeans enjoyed the wines of their region; even today, if you go to a restaurant in, say, La Rioja or Burgundy, most of the wines will be from there. Producers worked with the materials at hand, though they could propagate vines with favorable traits by taking cuttings from those vines and replanting them, which in any case was how farmers developed new vines, as opposed to growing them from seed. Now known as clonal selection, the practice has a long history; Pinot Noir has immense clonal diversity, starting with Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.
The ancients realized there were different kinds of grapes from which wine could be made, and European scholars began trying to identify them systematically at least two centuries before Carl Linnaeus developed his system of biological taxonomy in the 1700s and included Vitis vinifera, the grape species from which virtually all wine is made. Despite these efforts, the knowledge of ampelography—the cataloging of the numerous varieties of that species—seems to have had a minimal effect on what went on in most vineyards before the mid-1800s.
Three developments changed this state of affairs. Starting in the 1860s, phylloxera devastated the European wine industry. Winemakers searched frantically for solutions, some of which lay in the emerging science of biology. They grafted their vines onto American rootstock, which was immune to phylloxera, and started using pesticides. Scientists also developed new varieties by cross-breeding existing ones. In 1882, for example, the Swiss vine breeder Hermann Müller produced what is now known as Müller-Thurgau by crossing Riesling and Sylvaner; the new grape’s prolific yields and ability to grow almost anywhere made it the most widely grown variety in Germany by the early 1970s, though it now trails Riesling by a good margin.
Finally, as serious winemaking spread to North and South American, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, producers could choose which grape varieties they wanted to cultivate. In some cases, immigrants brought samples from their home countries. In others, producers carefully selected varieties with oenological and commercial potential, as David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon did in the 1980s when he planted Pinot Gris cuttings from Oregon, where the variety is now the state’s most widely cultivated light-skinned one. Here, too, scientists have experimented. The South African variety Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault developed in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold, the first professor of viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch.
Today, there are 1,368 grape varieties from which wine is made commercially, Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz tell us in their encyclopedia Wine Grapes, which was published last fall and whose 1,280 pages feature at least a brief entry on every one. (Not varietal, they say in the introduction. Varietal is an adjective.) It's a daunting profusion even for those who read only the tag lines on the entries for the minor grapes, which can be quite witty, like Aramon Noir, a “very productive vine once responsible for much of France’s least noble wine.”
The occasional obscure entry contains a great story. Cavus, for example, takes its name from the Turkish word for sergeant, one of whom brought it back from Taif near Mecca in the 1600s to give to the Sultan. In 1720, Sultan Ahmet III sent 37 vines of Cavus to the first Ottoman embassy in France, where Louis XV had them transferred to Versailles. Or the Swiss Completer, which derives its name from completorium, “the evening office during which the Benedictine monks were traditionally allowed to drink a glass of wine in silence.”
Or the Jacquez, now grown mainly in Texas and Brazil, which may come from the town of New Bordeaux near the Savannah River, where French Huguenots settled in the 18th century and introduced Vitis vinifera varieties. They discovered that grapes from one new seedling were more resistant to disease, and a Spaniard named Jacques apparently took a sample to Natchez, Mississippi, where the grape got its name.
The multiplicity of varieties reflects the history of wine. The obscure ones tend to fall into two categories. Hundreds are varieties developed since the dawn of modern biology, almost none of which have caught on despite the effort involved in developing them. The book includes a fold-out chart of the genealogy of Brianna, a hybrid obtained in 1983 by Elmer Swanson, who crossed 93 varieties to generate the Brianna. There are also hundreds of grapes grown only in a very small region. Most have fallen into oblivion, but a few have enjoyed a modest renaissance, like the Uva Longanesi, which was saved by Antonio Longanesi in 1913 after he discovered a hardy, fungus-resistant vine on a property he had just purchased near the city of Ravenna in the Italian province of Emilia-Romagna.
A handful of varieties dominate the modern wine world because producers want to market products with names consumers will recognize. Some varieties seem to resist travel, most notably Nebbiolo, the Piemontese grape form which Barolo and Barbaresco are produced. Others, like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, do work well outside of their native territories, but only within a certain temperature range (cooler for Pinot, warmer for Cabernet); a few, especially Chardonnay, seem capable of producing good wine wherever they’re planted.
Swings of fashion can dramatically affect a variety’s fortunes. Syrah, for example, was once a minor grape even in France. Planted on only 3,959 acres there in 1958, it now occupied 169,482 acres in 2009. Fellow Rhone variety Viognier has enjoyed a more dramatic resurgence thanks to the dramatic increase of its wines in the 1980s; planted on a mere 35 acres in France a half-century ago, it now takes up 10,869 there, having caught in southern France, and California winemakers have also adopted the variety over the last generation after seeing the prices it can fetch.
The book’s one major omission is a cursory discussion of clones, a failure Robinson and her co-authors justify by pointing to the book’s current length. They suggest in their treatment of the Pinot family how important clonal selection can be, especially for such an old variety. But they note that there are more than 60 clones of Riesling in Germany without offering even the capsule explanation set out in the entry on clonal selection in Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine. According to that work, clonal selection for vines was first demonstrated in Germany in 1926, and the country has remained at the forefront of research in the area. In Dijon, researchers at the Université de Bourgogne have spent decades developing virus-free clones of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It’d be nice to have a little more of this detail, especially since the pervasive influence of modern science in winemaking is a major theme of Wine Grapes.
That quibble notwithstanding, the book is a major achievement and will enrich wine drinkers’ appreciation not just of the major grapes, but of varieties like Arneis and Grignolino, Mencia and Xinomavro as well.