Wine at its best is a representation of a place and a time. A bottle of wine captures the essence of a single harvest of fruit, the place it was grown, and the people that made it. Time is an inescapable topic when discussing wine. We are always talking about vintages, determining how much time a wine needs to age until it is ready to consume, discussing the age of a vineyard, and learning about traditions old and new. Much like anything in this world, there is a debate about which is better: old or new, tradition or innovation, the past or the future.
During the latter half of the 20th century we saw a trend toward an familiar, easy to drink, international style of wine. Consumers were educated to prefer wines made from recognizable noble varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. We saw a focus on modern, interventionist winemaking, with wines being created in laboratory-like wineries. There was greater access to tools like temperature control, extended oak aging, cultivated yeast strands, filtration, and stabilization. Robust reds, oaky whites, easy drinking styles, and familiar varietals dominated.
Undoubtedly winemaking was improving. Products were more consistent. Quality was increasing. Consumers could have confidence that a bottle from unheard of countries would be drinkable. We saw a decrease in wine faults and funky bottles. We also saw the physical landscape of the vineyard changing. Small, traditional winemaking regions were now gaining access to international markets. Finally they could sell to more than just local consumers or tourist, but because consumers were demanding these Noble Varietals (Cabernet, Pinot, Chardonnay, Merlot, etc.), these producers felt the financial pressure to plant these varieties. Traditional varietals were losing their space in the vineyard.
Vines with challenging names like Schioppettino, Xinomarvo, and Pošip were hard to sell on the global market. These varieties adapted to their surroundings over countless generations, evolving slowly to thrive in their terroir. The grapevine is capable of adapting to local climate and terroir, becoming more resistant to local pests, diseases, and extreme weather. Indigenous grapevines may not have the mass appeal of an oaky Cabernet or a silky Pinot Noir, but they thrive in challenging years while showcasing different flavors and aromas.
Is different good? That depends on whom you ask. Talk to some consumers and they say they want familiar. Others prefer new and exciting. There is a big shift occurring as a new generation of wine consumers is coming of age. They don’t have preconceived notions about what good wine is. They did not grow up drinking classic wines like Bordeaux, Chianti, or Chablis. Most likely they had a Chilean or American wine long before they were ever exposed to a ‘classic’ wine. They certainly have heard of Cabernet Sauvignon, but they may not have learned that Cabernet is King.
In this shifting demographic we are seeing an embrace of wine that tastes different. Winemakers have access to so many different markets, that they no longer have to make wine that tastes like every other wine in order to make a sale. Small growers are rescuing traditional, indigenous grape varietals, and making wine that tastes like it did generations ago. They are embracing traditional winemaking techniques like skin-contact whites, aging in clay, and native yeast fermentation. Through a glass of wine made from traditional varietals a consumer can get a sense of the place from which it comes.
Let’s take the example of the Schioppettino grape variety, traditionally found in the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region of northeast Italy. The grape has a long history in the region, being referenced in documents dating back to the 13th century. In the 1970s it was hard to find many of these vines after suffering epidemics of powdery mildew and phylloxera. Local growers were seeing the local and global market change and were hesitant to replant this traditional varietal, known for its dominating peppercorn flavor, floral aromas and notes of green vegetation. This is not the flavor profile the market was searching for, so growers planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and other noble varietals, nearly wiping out the Schioppettino vine.
One winemaker, Paolo Rapuzzi, founder of Ronchi di Cialla, was determined to create wines of native varietals, but he saw that Schioppettino wasn’t even recognized by local wine authorities. It was thought extinct, so it hadn’t been registered. He was able to locate 70 vines in the region, propagate new plants from cuttings, and revive the vine in the face of resistance from local authorities and international pressure. As he and other winemakers became more familiar with the peculiar personality of the grapes, they recognized that it required a specific terroir, and requiring different winemaking techniques. Now Schioppettino is sought out as a true representation of Italy’s native character, showing high acid, subtle fruit character, and big pop of black peppercorn.
This story is not unique to Italy or Schioppettino. South America is a continent with no truly native varietals (all vines were brought by Europeans), but it has over 450 years of grape growing history, and lots of old vines to prove it. During the colonization of South America, the Spanish planted Muscat of Alexandria and Mission (aka Negra Criolla, País, Misionera). These varietals were resilient, easy to propagate, and are still found in vineyards throughout the continent. Muscat of Alexandria is notoriously aromatic, though it is often thought of as being less elegant than other Muscat grapes. The Mission vine produces big yields and adapts well to many environments, but if not made with care it can lack the character or finesse desired for fine wines.
Even though South America is not home to native grape varietals, over time vines crossed and created unique varietals that can be called uniquely South American. Muscat of Alexandria and Mission create several similar crossings all known by the name Torrontés, a grapevine that is planted widely in Argentina and even in Bolivia. This variety is intense in aroma, and when grown in altitude finds a balancing acidity. Vischoqueña, a think-skinned, aromatic, red varietal is yet another grape that calls South America its home, having roots in Vicchoca, a town not far from Bolivia’s traditional Cinti Valley growing region. There are a few theories about the provenance of this grape that still need to be investigated, but the most likely story is that Vischoqueña is a red mutation or crossing of Muscat of Alexandria. This grape is being planted in small vineyards throughout the Cinti Valley, the ancestral home of Bolivian wine. In the hands of small growers and winemakers like Tierra Roja and Cepa de Oro, this grape is finding its voice, creating red wines of a pale ruby color with an expressive berry and floral aroma. This is a sharp contrast to the rich, dark fruit and intense earthy aromas of the Tannat wines (a vine brought in from France) that have gained recognition in Bolivia in recent years.
Chile is also home to large plantings of Mission and Muscat of Alexandria, and many vineyards escaped destruction during the influx of Noble Varietals that occurred during the later part of the 20th century. Though Merlot, Carménère, and Cabernet Sauvignon dominated the landscape, many old vineyards have been resurrected, showing the complexity and elegance of old vine Muscat and Mission (known locally as País). One such example, Cacique Maravilla, where Manuel Humberto Moraga Guitérrez, 7th generation owner of some seriously old vineyards in the Bío Bío valley is making wines that blend the old and new. His wines include orange, methode ancestral sparkling, and 1-liter bottles of Pipeño, a local, rustic style of wine made to be refreshing and easy to drink.
So in the end, who wins, Native or Noble? The beauty of the modern wine industry, and the rise in wine consumption, is that there is space for everyone. There is a great joy in getting to know a favorite grape like Cabernet Sauvignon by tasting one from each of the dozens of countries in which it is grown. There is, however, also great potential in getting to understand the centuries of tradition hidden inside of a bottle made from a unique, local varietal. Ask your wine steward or sommelier what they recommend, and keep an open mind. By stretching your comfort zone and trying some of these little recognized, traditional varietals, you may open yourself to a new experience that you may never forget.