The old saying goes “never judge a book by its cover”, but in the case of ‘Wine Grapes: A complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties’, the plain sleeve and scope couldn’t be much clearer.
Putting each and every known wine grape variety under the microscope and giving the appropriate cultural history and factual DNA make-up, this comprehensive pool of information is accessible to both the scholar and the interested novice.
The novice reader might, however, question where they’re going wrong. Akin to a poorly titled mystery, the biggest surprise of the book has already been given away by the title highlighting that there are an amazing 1,368 different grape varieties out there to try.
A recent survey showed that of the varieties available, only the top 12 (so, less than 1%) were responsible for more than half of the worlds planted vines. That’s an extraordinary statistic; over half of the vine-planted world is given over to less than 1% of the available vine varieties.
Our hit-list contains such favourites as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir and Syrah (aka Shiraz) for your reds and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Muscat Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris for your white. Any one of these varieties is now in the official ‘comfort zone’.
Clearly there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with any one of the above varieties, which are well-known, successful, highly adaptable and able to give consistent high-yielding results. The point is, there is much mileage beyond.
Readers may now be starting to wonder if they could have been more inventive the last time they reached for another bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, but the blame isn’t entirely on your shoulders. People do indeed go with what they know more often than not, but this is something that supermarkets are well-oiled towards. They don’t want to take too many chances when it comes to the profits. Familiarity is safety.
Wine producing countries new to the game (so, any since the late 70’s/early 80’s) are also well aware of trends and plant their vineyards accordingly. They only want to produce the well-recognised international varieties that will guarantee sales.
This commerce comes at the expense of tradition. Grape varieties adapt to their surroundings and the unknown indigenous varieties that have thrived forever are the ones that truly speak of the history and diversity of the country. Spanish producer Torres is one going to amazing lengths to bring back long-lost varieties from extinction.
On the flip-side, the consumer also needs to have a little more interest when it comes to seeking out what is beyond the obvious. If you can get past the funny and sometimes vaguely un-pronounceable names, there are absolute treasures to be found.
A good range that celebrates this diversity is the Wine Atlas range from Asda. Dressed up in gorgeous labels evocative of the heyday of early 20th century travel, this is your ideal chance to try the lesser spotted Feteasca Neagra, Negroamaro, Grillo or Bobal.
If you’re feeling really competitive you may like to apply to the Wine Century Club. Try 100 or more varieties, Google the club, fill in the entry form, and a nifty certificate will be on its way to you letting you know how unique such a feat is.