Italy Strikes Back: Wine Diversity in Theory and Practice

In theory wine is an enormously diverse product. There are hundreds and hundreds of wine grape varieties grown all around the world. You could drink a different kind or style of wine from a different place every night of the year and not more than scratch the surface. What fun!

Disappearing Diversity

In practice, however, wine as it is actually experienced often ends up being far less interesting than it could be. Global vineyards are increasingly planted to just a couple of dozen grape varieties out of the roughly 1500 available, for example. A handful of “international” wine grape varieties make up an increasing proportion of the global vineyard area, squeezing out space for other grape varieties.

As Kym Anderson and team note in their excellent Which Wine Grape Varieties Are Grown Where?

The extent of varietal concentration in the world’s vineyard has increased non-trivially between 2000 and 2016. Half the world’s plantings were accounted for by 21 varieties in 2000 but, by 2010, that total had dropped to 15 varieties and it rose only by one, to 16, in 2016.  …

Other ways to explore the varietal diversity issue involve examining how internationalized varieties have become. One way is to look at what share of the global area is devoted to varieties by their country of origin. In 2000, French and Spanish varieties dominated the global landscape, accounting for almost three-fifths of the world’s winegrape vineyard area, with Italian varieties boosting that share to 70%. By 2016 that share had risen slightly to 72%, but France now dominates much more at the expense of Spain

You see the loss in diversity almost everywhere if you look for it. In the Napa Valley, for example, historically significant Zinfandel is replaced by Cabernet Sauvignon. Tempranillo is taking over Spanish vineyards in the same way. This trend is not always a bad thing, it must be said, because sometimes the vanishing grapes were grown for their high yields not good quality. But it isn’t always a good thing either.

As distributors have consolidated in response to the covid pandemic and now the prospect of stagflation’s unwelcome return, they have also tended to focus on a smaller selection of wine products. And, as I argued here a few weeks ago, some consumers are likely to react to stagflation’s impacts through “risk management” strategies that focus on a few trusted wine brands or types with fewer experimental purchases.

The Case of Sauvignon Blanc

Have wine styles (not just the grape varieties) become less diverse, too? This is an economics newsletter, not a tasting report, so I will ask you to think about this question and answer it yourself. It does seem to me that at least some of the diversity in regional and personal styles has disappeared (with the rise of natural wine being the obvious counter-point).  And I am not  just talking about “Parkerization.”

It used to be that Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc stood out as a really distinctive wine, for example. Nothing else really like it. I remember when Sue and I were visiting Norcia, Italy about 20 years ago when the first few bottles of Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc came to town. Our local friends were very excited — this was something completely new to them.

Now, however, when we taste Sauvignon Blanc wines from around the world, we often find products made in the Kiwi style. Lately we have been surprised when we taste something different, something with a sense of itself. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I guess the Marlborough producers should be flattered, indeed.

Support Your Local Grape

All of this is a way of saying that if we value wine’s diversity we need to seek out and support producers who make it their business to fill in the gaps between the big-name international grape varieties and wines. The niches may not be large in market terms, but they can be important. And valuable in the long run, as well. It was not so long ago, for example, that Touriga National seemed to be fading away in Portugal.  Now, of course, it is the basis of many excellent wines.

Italy is a place to look if you want to see wine’s diverse mosaic (see Ian D’Agata’s book, Native Wine Grapes of Italy. for details) and two wines that we recently received as samples from dynamic Piemonte producer Colle Manora provide food for thought The first was the Colle Manora “Ray,” made from 100% Albarossa, a grape variety I’ve never tasted before. The second was the Colle Manora “Palo Alto,” 100% Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir). Pinot Noir from the land of Nebbiolo?

First Taste of Albarossa

The “Ray” Albarossa caught my attention right away. Albarossa? Well, it is a little-known and relatively rare Piemonte grape variety — the result of a cross between Barbera and Nebbiolo from the same experimental vineyard in Conegliano that produced the important Mansoni Blanc variety. Barbera — Piemonte’s most productive grape variety — crossed with noble Nebbiolo. You can see the attraction. Wine Grapes reports that there were only about 25 acres of Albarossa in Italy (and the world) in 2000 — a figure that has probably grown but is still tiny by any standard.

But there is a twist. The Nebbiolo in question was Nebbiolo di Dronero, a.k.a. Chatus,  Chatus? Another grape variety to add to the list. In any case the cross was a good one. Ian D’Agata calls Albarossa “one of Italy’s most successful crossings ever.”

We paired the wine with asparagus risotto with prosciutto and the acidity, herbs, and spices of this medium-bodied wine worked very well. A success and something I will look for on future trips to the Italian northwest.

And Now for Something Completely Different

As much as we enjoyed the “Ray” Albarossa, I have to say the Pinot Nero was the big surprise. Tasting this wine from a familiar international grape variety I sensed what our Norcia friends must have felt when they sipped their first glass of Marlborough Sauvignon Bland. Pinot Noir? This wine didn’t have any of the subtle nuances that made Miles wax all poetic in Sideways. This Pinot Noir was big and bold. And different in an interesting way. If I had tasted it blind I might have guessed a Syrah — Sue said she would have guessed  Merlot perhaps.

But of course it wasn’t Merlot or Syrah, it was a really different vision of Pinot Noir that made me think and re-think. I’ll bet it would be interesting with a few years of bottle age. But I couldn’t wait to pull the cork.

Life is Too Short …

Pinot from Piemonte? Pinot is grown in this region but is most often a blending grape according to my notes. But Pinot Noir has a tendency to inspire winemaker devotion, even in the “wrong” places. When Sue and I visited Braida, the famous Piemonte producer, we learned that Pinot is Giuseppe Bologna’s passion, too, and enjoyed the unique experimental barrel samples he provided.

I still haven’t tasted what is probably the most extreme Pinot Noir, at least from the standpoint of location. I’m talking about Il Masin, the Pinot Noir that the famous paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey made on from grapes grown on his hillside vineyards in … Keyna!

But I am determined to keep trying wines that celebrate the diverse potential of the grape. Life is too short to drink boring wine, don’t you think?

2 responses

  1. The “Disappearing Diversity” is an argument that one hears every so often. But I think it is to a large extent an illusion.

    Yes, it is true that some of the “international” (that is French) grape varieties are growing in acreage. But does anyone really miss the thousands of acres of airen that we no longer find in Spain (200,000 hectares lost)? Or the large swathes of aramon making unremarkable wines in southern France (150,000 ha lost)? Other grapes have (obviously) been planted in their stead.

    In fact, I think there are plenty of evidence that from a consumer perspective the wine world has become much, much more diverse over the last few decades. Would you have found any Etna wines in the 90? Or Rias Baixas and Txacoli? Nebbiolo from South Africa? Madiran, Cahors and Irouleguy? Probably not. But now they are available around the world. Even the sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, that you mention, hardly existed at all before the 80s.

    So, I think that the wine lover today has a far larger and more diverse choice than did the wine lover one generation ago.

  2. Interesting column, Mike. Reminded me of a couple of things. Years ago, when I had a retail store, we did a promotion in which we put 100 different grape varieties on a tasting passport and then had a weekly tasting featuring 5 of the varieties. Over time, people could taste and check off the ones they’d tried. Frankly, it wasn’t hard to list 100, you don’t have to get too crazy (Bonarda, Garganega, Sauvignon Gris … ). I had forgotten about that, but it was really fun.

    Also was doing some research last year and it sounds like one of the biggest issues with variety consolidation is the genetic instability of our vineyard stocks. Sounds like some people are really worried about this.

    Cheers!

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