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A Grape By Any Other Name

I am on a grape mission. However, my grape mission should not to be confused with the Mission Grape.

That name was given to a variety of Vitis Vinifera planted in Las Provincias de las Californias by the Catholic padres who founded the first missions of California. Until recently, the original name of this grape was lost, thus the long-held moniker, “Mission Grape.” Long believed indigenous to California, in 2006 Spanish scholars from the Centro Nacional de Biotecnología uncovered the real origin of the Mission Grape. They determined its DNA matched a little-known grape variety from the Canary Islands called Listan Prieto. That was the local name for the Palomino Negro grape in the Ladino language. Incidentally, the white Palomino is still a primary grape used to make Sherry.

It’s also interesting to note, in Ladino, the word negro means “bad” or “unfortunate” and not “black,” which is prieto in Judeo-Spanish. Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish (djudeoespanyol), Sephardic, and Spanyol by linguists, had its origins in 1492 when Jews were expelled from Spain. They left behind the Listan Prieto vines whose origin fell into obscurity for 614 years. But, I have now digressed some six centuries and from my own mission. And that mission is to popularize the world’s ugly duckling grape varietals.

So, why do I care if you drink Nebbiolo [the grape in Barolo and Barbaresco] and turn up your nose at Xinomavro? And, why would I be appalled if I saw you drawn to Malbec on wine lists, then disappointed when I show up at your dinner party with a the bottle of Auxerrois? One reason: Because I highly value genetic diversity.

In effect, your purchases serve as votes. In the case of wine, these votes result in agricultural decisions with disastrous consequences. As the history of royal families attests, limiting a gene pool has adverse consequences. Interbreeding promotes recessive-gene diseases and builds the dynasties needed for the “group think” that retards cultural diversity.

Basically, everything was fine in the world of wine for about six millennia – up until the time Americans took an interest in viticulture. We took a really bad turn in the 1970’s, when the so-called “wine-boom” took place. Once Americans started drinking wine in quantity, we began labeling wines by grape variety. Lacking recognizable regions with centuries-old tradition to establish terrior and style, Americans needed easy ways to define categories. Enter the marketeers. By promoting grape varieties, we ad men gave the buyers of Colgate and Crest a way to sort out differences without actually thinking – the preferred technique of the American people. The results have been most unfortunate. We now see European wines also labeled by grape type instead of appellation. Worse still, American enthusiasm for “famous” grape varieties has led to the literal extinction of some charming “lesser” grapes.  We are committing a slow, dollar-fueled genocide of Vitis Vinifera. But I am getting ahead of myself now – by about a century.

The first, and largest, impact America had on the wine industry happened in 1862, just three years after Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published. Many complexities of botany and biology were still shrouded in mystery, so the unfortunate vignerons of France were completely unprepared for the devastation about to be wrought upon their vines by a diabolical and microscopic foe – an aphid like bug known as Phylloxera Vitifoliae. Phylloxera was introduced in Europe when English botanists collected specimens of indigenous American Vitis Labrusca vines in the 1850’s. According to grape expert Jancis Robinson, Vitis Labrusca was likely the species spotted by Leif Ericsson growing wild along the coast of “Vinland” in the 11th century. Because phylloxera is native to North America, Vitis Labrusca was at least partially resistant. By contrast, the lack of resistance in Vitis Vinifera made it as vulnerable to this little louse, as a virgin left unsupervised with Roman Polanski. The result was an epidemic that ravished all the vineyards in Britain. In 1863, phylloxera was introduced to the Rhône valley, and ultimately destroyed 90% of the European grape-growing industry in little over a decade. The French ministry of agriculture offered a huge reward (by 1874 it stood at 300,000 francs) for a cure, and hundreds of hare-brain ideas were proposed.

In the end, deductions based on Darwin’s new principles lead to the grafting of traditional French grape varieties onto American rootstock and the world’s wine industry could breathe a collective sigh of relief. However, this left wine lovers wondering if the New World vines brought to America, Chile and Australia were now more European than Europe’s, and if the new French vineyards were really American. The use of grafted rootstock to guard against phylloxera also opened a debate that remains unsettled to this day: Whether self-rooted vines produce better wine than those that are grafted. That curiosity naturally led to another particularly American hobby – the game-show notion that you can buy an answer. The high-end auction market has seen astronomical prices paid for pre-phylloxera wines from the big-name French chateaus ­– with especially high prices going for top vintages such as 1858, 1865, 1870 and 1875. Last November, three bottles of Château Lafite-Rothschild from the unheralded 1869 vintage were sold for $232,692 each at a Sotheby’s auction.

That brings me back to my mission – to create enthusiasm for the obscure, under-dog varietals that are still being made into wine around the world. Perhaps the opportunity to save $232,675 on a bottle of wine will encourage you to taste some long-forgotten pre-phylloxera wines from unfashionable regions and still grown on their original rootstock. And with savings like that, I suggest you book a luxury tour of each region, and take me along as your personal wine trainer. We will enjoy these esoteric wines in situ, as we drink a toast to history and cast our votes for obscure grape varieties.

Oh, in the event you were paying complete attention, and you wonder why I would be offended if a Malbec lover snubbed an Auxerrois – it’s because they are one in the same grape. To further confuse things, the French ampelographer, Pierre Galet, has documented over a thousand names for Malbec. Yet another reason to take me with you on a tour of the obscure – most people can’t tell a famous grape from an infamous one without a program. In vino veritas.

Here are my pre-phylloxera recommendations:

Domaine Sigalas Santorini Assyrtiko, white Santorini (Santorini, Greece) ±$14 The Assyrtiko grape, which grows on the volcanic island of Santorini, is the only European grape natively resistant to phylloxera. Although it is uncertain whether it’s truly resistant or if the variety is simply protected by the volcanic ash on which it grows. Assyrtiko wines are characterized by high acidity and minerality, and often referred to as “a red grape in a white skin,” due to their full body and high alcohol. Grape growers on Santorini use a unique vine training system, known as koulara. They weave the live vines into baskets with the grapes facing toward the inside. The vine’s leaves protect the grapes from harsh winds and sunburn. The koulara are often grown haphazardly on small plots and can be mistaken for wild bushes. This wine is sold by several British online wine retailers.

Adega Regional de Colares Arenae (Colares, Portugal) ±$15 Colares is best known for its red wines, which are made primarily from the Ramisco grape, who’s vineyards have been reduced to a measly 10 hectares, or 100,000 square meters. The Colares DOC sits along the Southwestern Atlantic Coast, just northwest of Lisbon. The vineyards are situated on a sandy plateau where the vines must be planted deep into the clay subsoil below. Because of the depth of the sandy soil, the vines are free of phylloxera and, therefore, were never grafted on American rootstock. Various online wine retailers in the U.S sell this wine.

Bodega Martinez Yerba Tres Racimos Tinto Mencía Joven Roble (El Bierzo, Spain) ±$65 This wine is made from vines that survived the onslaught of phylloxera which made it to this region in 1885. The Mencía grapes from which this wine is made, were planted over a century ago the vicinity of the Villadecanes, Parandones and Valtuille townships. The altitude of some 500 meters and angle of the slopes, together with the sandy soil, could be the reasons why the vines survived this parasitic plague. This wine was targeted at a single Singapore collector and limited to a production of just 1000 bottles. This wine or the younger Viñadecanes Tinto Mencía Crianza may be available via Malaysian online wine sellers.

Suggestion for further reading: The Botanist and the Vintner: How Wine Was Saved for the World, by Christy Campbell

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One Response to A Grape By Any Other Name

  1. All the vines grown in the Canary Islands are still phylloxera free as the disease never affected the islands.

    The mission grape descends from the Canarian Listan Negro or Listan Prieto grape.

    The mystery is how Listan Negro survived in the Americas in the first place when it is a European variety and shouldn’t be phylloxera resistant.

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