For the second edition of Millesima Tips, we are going to focus on an important aspect of the wine-making process. No two grapes taste alike. We are going to closely examine several different grape varietals and understand how it translates to what we find in our glasses.
Grapes & vines
Grapes can be enjoyed as a summer snack or in a bottle of the finest wine. The grapes used are different, based on the intended consumption. Table grapes are firm and have a crisp pulp. Grapes used for wine-growing have more juice and acidity. Grape varietals are different vines that are distinguishable by their leaves, berries, the shape of the berries and their colors. Each varietal has its own expression which corresponds to their unique odors and flavors.
Ampelography is the term for studying grape varieties, or the science of grape varieties. It allows us to observe and understand the differences between different grape varietals. Simon de Rojas Clemente y Rubio (19th century), Count Alexandre Odart (mid-19th century) and Louis Levadoux (20th century) grouped together the several French grapes into different families. Count Odart noticed that there were grape varieties that had, “one or more characteristics in common.” Levadoux’s work and research was confirmed in the 1990s by Montpellier’s INRA and University of California at Davis.
So in France, the 210 authorized grape varieties are classified in families (and sub-types):
- Alpins (Mollard)
- Carmenets (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Fer Servadou, Merlot, Petit Verdot)
- Chenins (Bequignol, Chenin, Meslier, Pineau d’Aunis, Sauvignon Blanc)
- Comtois (Aubin, Gringet, Gewurztraminer, Persanne Gris, Savagnin Blanc, Trousseau)
- Cotoides (Cot / Malbec, Merille, Negrette, Tannat, Valdiguie)
- Durifs (Durif Noir, Joubertin, Mondeuse Blanche, Peloursin, Verdesse)
- Folloides (Folle Blanche, Jurancon Blanc, Jurancon Noir, Montils, Ondenc, Sacy)
- Gouais (Aligote, Blanc Dame, Enfarine noir, Gouais, Muscadelle)
- Mansiens (Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng)
- Muscats (Muscat d’Alexandrie, Muscat blanc, Muscat de Hambourg)
- Noiriens (Chardonnay, Gamay, Melon de Bourgogne, Pinot Noir)
- Panses (Bourboulenc, Clairette de Provence, Plant droit, Pascal blanc, Teoulier)
- Picpouls (Araignan Blanc, Aspiran, Cinsault, Picpoul Noir, Terret Noir)
- Rhenans (Riesling, Sylvaner)
- Serines (Altesse, Marsanne, Mondeuse, Persan, Roussanne, Syrah, Viognier)
Today, genetic research complements ampelographic studies and allows us to learn more about the origins of several grape varieties. Grapes can also be classified by region. It is not uncommon to find some grapes in multiple regions with completely different characteristics. Chardonnay is a great example, it can be found in Bourgogne and Champagne.
Wine varieties, single-varietals and blends
Sometimes the grape variety is so significant that it can be found in the name of the wine. Popular “grape-varietal wines” are Gewurtzraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris. They are often produced in Protected Geographical Indications, or PGI’s. Wines from France are also allowed to disclose the grape variety. When the wines are exported, their quality is more easily recognizable for international markets.
It’s easy to confound “grape-varietal wines” with “single-grape variety wines”. “Grape-varietal wines” usually consist of one grape varietal, but single-varietal wines don’t necessarily display the grape used. In Burgundy, wine labels have the appellation, domain and sometimes the specific plot of land from where the grapes are harvested.
Certain grape varieties are used to produced wines that have characteristics from several grapes, this is the case of blended wines. They are rarely – if ever- used alone. Typically, they are grown with the intention of mixing them with other varieties. Bordeaux is a region known for its blends of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot or Malbec. This science of blending gives wines more complex aromas, flavors and structures. Of course, a vintage’s weather condition also has a large influence on the wine.
Plant hybrids that are Phylloxera resistant
After the Phylloxera outbreak in 19th century Europe, drastic measures were taken to fight against the disease. Hybrid plants were created by grafting French vines onto American vine roots. The result was a grapevine that is resistant to insects and can be planted on various types of soil. Certain grape varieties were banned in the 1930s to limit overproduction and poor-quality wines.
And on a global scale?
While it is difficult to give an exact number of how many grape varieties exist today, we estimate that there are 9600 in the world.
Researchers at the University of Adelaide created an enormous database of global grape varieties. While the total area of vineyards is steadily declining, the rankings of French varietals are quite high. Even with this decline, 6 of the 10 top varieties are French. These varieties are planted all around the world: the United States, Argentina, Italy and Australia. These are just a few popular countries that use French grape varietals.