What is a grape variety?
Are you often lost when you have a to pick a wine at the supermarket? Grapes like Merlot, Pinot noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz are familiar to you but you don’t really know what they are? Even if they don’t always appear on the label, grape varieties are the basis of any wine.
So what is a grape variety?
The grape variety is a type of grape used to make wine. Every grape is different according to its foliage and its berries. The berries can have different sizes, different colours and of course different aromas.
There are both European grapes and American grapes that are used for the production of wine or indeed for consumption as fruit.
The vines planted in Europe to produce wine experienced a crisis at the end of the 19 century. An aphid, called phylloxera, destroyed a huge number of vineyards and completely eliminated some ancestral grape varieties. This insect was brought over from the United States. The massive destruction let to more than two million hectares of vines being dug up and extracted. The solution was to replant all the vines with roots from an American species onto which the European species were grafted.
Indeed, the very species of vines and grape varieties are different! In Europe, the most widespread species of vine is known as Vitis vinifera and it can produce all of the different grapes with which you are familiar. It is renowned for the quality of its wines. However, the American species are more renowned to be resistant to phylloxera.
Differences between grape varieties
Different colours and shapes for different wines
Of course, there are different grape varieties which have different characteristics. We can identify them thanks to their differences.
Firstly, grapes have different skins. When the grapes are pressed and the skins macerate in the juice, the thickness, the colour of the grape and the tannins of the skin will greatly influence the style and the aromas of the wine. From a powerful red to a light-bodied red or a mineral white to a fruity white…
The berries are not the only difference between grapes. The foliage is also useful for identification. Here are two examples that will help you understand the differences between the grape’s leaves :
Above, top, a Chardonnay leaf. Below, a Cabernet Sauvignon leaf
Different climates needed to flourish
Performing an analysis of the grape’s environment is very important before planting in a particular location. Knowing that the environment will allow the grapes to develop well with good quality fruit is crucial. Making wine starts in the vineyard and the selection of grape varieties is therefore key to good wine production.
Let’s take a look at two grape varieties for a better understanding of their importance!
Gewurztraminer is a typical grape from the Alsace region. It is a white grape with some very specific aromas that are instantly recognisable. If you were to describe a wine with lychee and rose aromas to professionals, they would tell you right away that it’s a Gewurztraminer.
Grapes of Gewurztraminer ready to be harvested.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a red grape that we find a lot in Bordeaux wines. Though it may be a little surprising for a red, we often find aromas of green bell pepper in wines from Cabernet Sauvignon!
Aromas and colour play an important role in the differentiation of the grapes. The location of the vineyard is also an extremely important criterion in choosing a grape. Climate enormously influences the grape’s maturity. If the grape has been planted in the wrong place, it will have a hard time to grow and to adapt. The quality will be affected. Gewurztraminer only ripens in cool to temperate climates with an average temperature during the growth cycle of between 16.5°C and 18.5°C. The growth cycle refers to the growth of the vine during spring. On the contrary, Cabernet Sauvignon is more resilient to drought and warm temperatures because it is able to ripen in warm climates with average temperatures reaching 21°C during the growing season.
If a grape is planted in a warm climate while it should have been planted in a cooler climate, grapes can be damaged by the sun and over-ripen. Every grape ripens at a different time and one climate does not suit every grape.
Different grape varieties planted in a vineyard or in an appellation are not chosen at random. A number of grapes are authorised in a wine appellation. They are chosen according to their colour, climate, researched aromas and the type of wine that one wishes to produce. All of these characteristics are registered in a specification.
Authorised grapes have been chosen according to the experiences of previous generations and according to studies of soils and climates. Some appellations authorise only one variety, such as Condrieu in the Rhône Valley where Viognier is the only white grape approved.
Others allow more freedom for the winemakers who will then consider the planting of the vineyard according to their individual tastes and according to which grapes they intend to blend together. To blend a wine means to combine several complementary grapes together to create the final wine. The role of the winemaker is to determine the most harmonious combinations of the grapes.
For example, in Bordeaux, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are often blended together. Merlot gives roundness and aromas of red fruits whereas Cabernet Sauvignon gives structure, tannins and a deep colour to the wine with aromas of black fruits. This creates a balance in the final blend. In Bordeaux, wine regions are separated by the Dordogne and the Garonne rivers: this distinction is commonly known as the Right Bank and Left Bank. These two banks have their own features in terms of grapes and blends. On the Left Bank, made up of the Médoc and Graves regions, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the plantings. On the Right Bank, more inland and less influenced by the ocean, Merlot is the most widely planted grape, particularly in Saint-Émilion. However, other grapes are authorised in the Bordeaux blends such as Cabernet Franc and Petit-Verdot.
Blending the wine is a complex skill in and of itself!
Test tubes and samples of wine are the basic tools for blending.
The state of play today
In France, since the phylloxera crisis at the beginning of the 20th century, plantings have evolved a great deal. In the last 25 years, there has been a real revamp.
For example, plantings of Syrah have been multiplied by 5 while the presence of the Carignan grape dropped by 65% in the plantings. These two grapes can be found mainly in the Languedoc-Roussillon region and in the Rhône Valley for the Syrah.
For the white grapes, Sauvignon Blanc prevalence has multiplied by 3 on French vineyards, while Sémillon decreased by 47%.
These two examples show the emergence of international “star” grapes that are today planted all around the world. This reshuffling has led to a loss of certain grapes that have since been forgotten.
Today, the most widely planted grape in France is Merlot with 112 200 hectares of vine planted according to the OIV (International Organisation of Vine and Wine).
The revamp of the French viticultural landscape has of course a number of economic origins. Certain grapes are more valued than others by the consumers. Winemakers frequently make decisions according to this important factor, in particular to satisfy foreign clients. In Burgundy, this was the case with the white grape Aligoté, that was uprooted to plant Chardonnay in its place because many American clients preferred the latter.
Some winemakers decide to uproot vine stocks of a grape that is not selling well to plant one that is more popular. This phenomenon was a central element of the debate about the expansion of the Burgundy appellation to the south, towards the Beaujolais region at the beginning of 2020. Some winemakers of the Beaujolais region could be tempted to remove some vines of Gamay, a historic grape of the region, to plant Pinot Noir instead (a Burgundy-approved grape). Plantings of Gamay have decreased while Pinot Noir remains a safe bet for the consumers. However, the proposed project of changing the Burgundy appellation has since been refused.
Another economic argument, very important for the evolution of the plantings, is the yield of the grapes. Indeed, some grapes are easier to work with and some more resistant than others, which influences the winemakers choice.
Forgotten grapes are coming back in an adaptation to climate change
One of the first impacts of climate change on wine is the increase in the alcoholic potential of the grapes which diminishes their acidity. Some otherwise forgotten grapes are making a comeback, previously sidelined because of their lack of productivity or because their aromatic qualities were less developed. For example, Counoise, a Spanish grape widely cultivated in the Rhône Valley, brings lightness and reduced alcohol to the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
A bunch of Counoise grapes ripening in the sun.
Forgotten grapes are well-adapted to climate change because they are resistant to drought or extreme cold. They stand out from the crowd often because they mature later which allows them to retain their acidity and to tolerate hot summers.
Some winemakers are also looking for authenticity, pursuing a return to the values of their terroir. They are planting grapes that their grandparents used to cultivate. This movement is frequently linked with an organic or biodynamic approach to viticulture. We can compare the comeback of old grapes to the comeback of old vegetables in the agricultural world. More than a passing fad, forgotten grapes are now registered in some specifications as an adaptation to climate change.