The joy of more than six. “Wine Grapes” co-author Julia Harding MW on being varietally adventurous

For me, Portugal’s trump card is its rich heritage of native grape varieties. So it was music to my ears when “Wine Grapes'” co-author Julia Harding MW said “[B]ecause producers are planting and valuing a wider selection of varieties, there’s a gracious circle rather than vicious spiral down to the big six [Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Merlot and Syrah].” (Harding is pictured left with co-authors Jancis Robinson MW (right) and Dr José Vouillamoz (centre)).

For Harding, who adds, “I’d be thrilled to bits if producers and consumers were inspired by Wine Grapes to become more adventurous”, there’s a lot of pleasure to be had from casting the varietal net far and wide. This is why the book focused exclusively on grape varieties whose wines readers can buy (though in some cases, I suspect they may need to be as proficient researchers as the authors of this impressive tome)!

Below you’ll find a summary of my interview with Harding on Wine Grapes, about which author John Lanchester enthused (here“combines 21st-century science with the ambition, scale and authority of 19th-century scholarship.” My eagerly anticipated copy is on order but, as you can see, the Victorian-esque varietal illustrations are quite beautiful.

“Wine Grapes” lists 1,368 different grape varieties which are, as your book puts it, currently making wine in commercial circulation. Did it surprise you how many?

Not really, because the starting point was the VIVC, which lists 10,000 varieties.  We worked out which were actually being made into wine, so we did well to narrow it down [to 1,368]!

How did you go about it?

We combined the information from this huge database [the VIVC] with what we already knew from our own knowledge, speaking with contacts (especially where we didn’t speak the language), wine guides and internet research.  We then used our contacts, the internet and to find out if the variety was making wine which was on sale.  We used every resource we could find.

And how did you define “currently making wine in commercial circulation.”

If even one producer was making wine, bottling, labelling and selling it commercially, that was enough.  We found a few one producer wines, for example Kolorko from S. Thrace which is only made varietally by Pasaeli.

Do you foresee any of the 1,368 grape varieties (even other grape varieties) achieving greater prominence going forward, perhaps as relatively new commercial wine producing countries rise to prominence (e.g. Asian countries) and/or as the criteria for planting grapes changes in response to climate change or indeed producers seek to differentiate themselves from the mainstream as a competitive strategy.

Most of the Asian varieties are not very exciting.

Climate change may result in some varieties achieving greater distribution, but I’d be surprised if anything got up there with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, partly because everyone is now interested in so many varieties, (though obscure varieties are hard to sell other than in absolutely local markets).  For example, I was talking to someone in New Zealand recently who wanted to try something different and I reeled off 10 varieties.  In the past, someone planting a new vineyard in New Zealand would have planted the big names.

Because producers are planting and valuing a wider selection of varieties, there’s a gracious circle rather than vicious spiral down to the big six [Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Merlot and Syrah].

What about totally new varieties?

America’s mid-west is a hotbed of hybrids and crossings.  They’re breeding mostly to deal with cool climates (winter hardiness is a big factor) and short growing seasons with lots of rain, where classic varieties don’t flourish.  I was really surprised by just how many varieties they have bred – there are 76 varieties attributed to the US.  There’s a real pride about them too – one person told me how people love wine made from a variety bred in their place, for example Traminette, an aromatic white with Gewürztraminer parentage.

Have you tasted all the varieties you’ve written up? If not, are there any which you are particularly keen to seek out?

Between the three of us, if we’d not tasted it, we would try and get a sample. We tasted as many as we possibly could.  I tasted some really obscure things like Kydonitsa from the Peloponnese on a recent visit and Sumoll Blanc from Catalunya, which I happened to find a group of producers selling on the internet. They were very pleased to send me a sample.

Those I haven’t tasted but would be interested to taste include Himbertscha from Switzerland, Italy’s Friuli Tazzelenghe and Aruffiac from the South West France which I’ve only tasted in a blend.  I’m also really interested to taste varieties that I know, but which have recently been planted in new places, for example Jim Barry’s Assyrtiko and Jeffrey Grosset’s Nero d’Avola.

Are there any varieties you would single out for super stardom in the future – anything which is up there with Pinot Noir, Cabernet or Chardonnay?

There are too many options now for any new varieties to become dominant.

I’m not sure if it’s also because there are none with the same degree of quality and adaptability.  For example Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling are planted widely and adapt to different terroirs within limitations, showing themselves/their character.  Kolorko from Turkey, Crete’s Vidiano, Malagousia from Greece and Spain’s Graciano all make very local but really high quality wines, but do they travel?

However I believe that, where someone has taken the trouble to rescue varieties – discover them, replant them and take them seriously – these once little known varieties will get more well known locally (rather than being international super stars).  For example Alvarinho and Galicia’s Godello are growing in recognition for their quality and gaining popularity, but I’m not sure they’re another Sauvignon Blanc.

Also, varieties that were difficult, maybe green and astringent or overripe are now being given more attention and, with careful viniculture and planting in the right places, they’re now getting there.  People now know how to make good wine from them, so they can be appreciated by more people and grown by more people.

I’d be thrilled to bits if producers and consumers were inspired by Wine Grapes to become more adventurous.  For consumers, not just for sake of it, but because there’s an awful lot of pleasure to be had.  It’s why we drew the line at grapes that were in commercial circulation – Wine Grapes isn’t just a theoretical book, the wines are out there for readers to buy and lots of people are desperate to taste more widely.

As for producers, I realise what a commitment it is – I’m not a viticulturist, I’m not a producer making a huge investment in time and taking a risk.

Print media is facing challenging times. How does it feel to be a co-author of “the nerdiest wine book ever published” and is “19th-century scholarship” (quoting John Lanchester) a back to the future riposte to the short is sweet world of the tweet?

It’s wonderful to have Wine Grapes in print form.  I love books – turning the pages.  Lots of people still do for reference books.  That said, we will do an electronic version because people want to pick things up on the move.

The problem with online sources is that so much is derivative and errors are widely repeated and perpetuated.  We wanted to get below the surface of repeated myth and error.  There’s a lot of mythology out there with producers, so we always tried to make sure that we didn’t just go with one source, that it was corroborated.  We also received very good support from academics working in viticultural institutes who were very helpful with DNA information and research which they were conducting.   So with input from growers and academics, we had the best of both worlds.

Still, it is terrifying writing a book and trying to be 100% accurate – it’s taken four years and we are only human.

I loved the fact that you focused on native varieties for your selection of 50 Great Portuguese Wines 2012. Did your work on Wine Grapes influence your choice of theme?

Absolutely, though I’ve always been a huge fan of indigenous varieties and tasting unusual varieties.  Through the book, my interest in them has really increased and I’m trying to encourage producers to really value, appreciate and add value to their own local varieties.  You often look down on what’s local and elevate the foreign.  Local can be absolutely wonderful.  But of course, there are some duff ones; I’m not trying to pretend otherwise.

Looking back, I think after phylloxera, lots of growers went for the easy option – high yielding, deeply coloured varieties, just for volume.  With a growing interest in quality over quantity, varieties that don’t have high yields or were seen as pernickety now have a better chance (also because of improvements in viticulture and vinification).  Take Biomanz Dona Fátima Jampal 2011 from my 50 Great Portuguese Wines’ selection.  There are only around 100ha of Jampal in Portugal and just one producer making a varietal wine.  The owner was advised to take it out because it didn’t yield well but, he said, ‘let’s try it for a year.’ It goes to show that some varieties have the potential if they’re cherished.

Producers from countries rich in native grape varieties like Portugal are often encouraged to make their offer more consumer friendly by focusing on just a few of their varieties, making single varietal wines and blending with so-called international or passport varieties. Do you think that’s the right way forward or is it important for countries to maintain their point of difference and work with those grapes which are perhaps best adapted to their terroir anwyay?

In purist terms, I like people to maintain their point of difference but, since I’m not the one paying salaries or selling wine, I’m speaking from a privileged position.  I’d like to say if you have trouble selling, use international varieties, but don’t go wholesale down the international route. Blends [with international varieties] can be really fantastic and, in end, I’m interested in fantastic wine.  On balance, I’d rather encourage local varieties because, otherwise, the potential for boring wine is high. And one thing wine should never be is boring.

When you are drinking wine socially as opposed to tasting, how wide do you cast the varietal net?

As wide as I possibly can.  I love to try something different.  I had a lovely, lovely 100% Fer from Marcillac on the eastern side of South West France recently.  Fer is pretty much restricted to Marcillac.  I’ve used it in two tastings, I loved it so much.

Click here for more details about Wine Grapes and here for an article by co-author Jancis Robinson MW about the book’s genesis. Under the special offers’ tab you will find details of UK and international stockists offering significant discounts on the RRP of £120/$175  (though fellow Brits might wonder if they’re subbing the discount following reports querying if a certain global operator is paying their fair share of UK taxes).


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