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The inside story of Wine Grapes

2 Oct 2012 by Jancis Robinson/Syndicated but this has been updated

In November four years ago I had lunch at the Café Anglais in London with Julia and a Swiss botanist, Dr José Vouillamoz (pictured here by Robert Hofer). I had met him previously only by email but could see just how knowledgeable he was about grape varieties and in particular about the application of DNA profiling to them. He had worked with Professor Carole Meredith at the University of California at Davis a few years after her team had made that seminal 1997 discovery that the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon are, as any six-year-old but no wine lover would have guessed, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.

José had an idea for a book he wanted to discuss with us. He was proposing a book that looked in detail at the genetic and historical background to all the major international grape varieties, the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Nebbiolo, Chardonnay and Riesling, for he had already amassed considerable original research material on all these. 

I thought it would indeed be exciting to publish a more expert and up-to-date view on these varieties than I had managed to assemble in the mid 1980s for my Vines, Grapes & Wines, the first book about wine grapes to be aimed at consumers. But I thought we could do better than that. Already four years ago the trend towards re-evaluating indigenous, sometimes almost extinct, vine varieties was clear to see. Wine drinkers, and more particularly wine producers, were becoming bored with the same old international grapes grown all over the world. They increasingly sought flavours and characters beyond the famous names, and if this novelty could be delivered by going back to local roots, so much the better.  All of this is very much in tune with the current locavore movement of eating and drinking only local produce, and with the trend towards preserving and maximising biodiversity. 

So, I proposed to Julia and José, why didn’t we produce a book that provided all this genetic and historical background, plus much more detail of interest to both wine professionals and wine lovers  – but for all grape varieties, not just the handful of the most famous ones? Perhaps I waited until José was onto his second glass of Allegrini Valpolicella Classico before making this bold proposal. In any event, the shoulders of us three Js have proved broad enough for this gigantic task because, at last, after years of toil, Wine Grapes – A complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours will see the light of day at the end of October, published by Allen Lane (Penguin) in the UK and Ecco (Harper Collins) in the US.   

There are, at the latest estimate, about 10,000 different vine varieties in total, so we decided to limit ourselves to those that produce wine commercially. Thanks to the current vogue for rediscovering ancient grape varieties – especially prevalent in Italy, following particularly admirable examples set in Switzerland and Gascony – there are experimental plantings of ancient and rescued varieties, some of them unnamed, many of them being multiplied so that eventually it may be possible to make sufficient wine from the results to market them. So I am fully aware that as soon as our book comes out, someone will complain that we have ignored the Lesser Spotted Whatsit. Only last weekend I was in Barcelona tasting an old, unnamed Catalan variety that the Torres family have just named which does not appear in our book. But, we had to stop somewhere (and we masochists welcome suggestions of varieties we should include in a second edition, sent to contact@winegrapes.org).

Where we did stop entailed quite enough work, I can assure you. In fact, one of the problems for the publishers was the precise nature of the subtitle we eventually, after much toing and froing between authors and publishers, settled on. The problem, as you might imagine, was determining exactly what the final tally of genetically distinct varieties was. DNA results and original research continue to emerge so the number kept changing as hitherto unknown relationships were established.  Variety Y which had an entry all to itself was suddenly proved by detailed study of its genetic profile to be identical to variety Z, whose entry in the book was somewhere quite different. Then a commercial bottling of a variety hitherto regarded as far too obscure to include was discovered. The number kept waning and waxing but in the end it totted up to 1,368.  

So much information have we given on each variety that the book runs to 1,200 pages and weighs well over three kilos or seven pounds. Indeed we had to fight tooth and nail with the publishers to keep it to a single volume. For each variety we break down the information into Synonyms (correct and, just as important, common erroneous ones), Origins and parentage (again, clearly divided into provable fact and incorrect or unproven hypothesis), Viticultural characteristics (helpful for growers looking for varieties suitable for their terrain), Where the variety is grown (with statistics on total area planted by region and/or country that are as accurate and up to date as possible) and, most importantly, What the wine tastes like. We also try to cite worthwhile examples of specific wines where possible.

I have to admit that the fact that this completely new work (José gets understandably cross when it is referred to as ‘Jancis’s update of Vines, Grapes & Wines’) has been beautifully designed has more to do with the publishers than us authors. The typography and layout recall the ampelographies that were so popular a century ago and they are adorned with 80 precise reproductions of the sumptuous colour plates from the first edition of the most famous ampelography of them all, Viala et Vermorel, which has just gone out of copyright but is near-impossible to find.

But perhaps the most compelling ingredient of the lot for those of us who are nuts about wine is the sheer scale of original material in Wine Grapes on the relationships between different varieties. One of our 14 family trees, that devoted to Pinot and its relatives, charts the relationships between no fewer than 156 different family members. The picture that is emerging is that, as with other groups of plants, there is a surprisingly small set of ‘founder varieties’ from which most other grapevines are descended. Until being involved with this book I had not heard of three of the dozen founder varieties so far identified. And I very much look forward to French reaction to the likely geographical origins of the founder variety of Bordeaux’s grandest red wine grapes…

Wine Grapes – A complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours published beautifully in October by Allen Lane (Penguin) in the UK and Ecco (Harper Collins) in the US. RRP £120/$175 but see this special offer of the book at £75 including p&p within the UK. Orders from other countries may be placed by phone, with shipping costs discussed.  

More information at www.winegrapes.org.

Tags:  Wine Grapes
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