New grape varieties aren’t born every day, you might think. Yes and no. The encyclopaedic Wine Grapes book details 1,368 grapes that are used commercially to make wine, but there are more than 10,000 in the world, most of them obscure and hyper-local. Some of the grapes which are so familiar we assume they have always been around are in fact relatively recent. Syrah appeared in print for the first time in the late 18th century, for example, long after many other now familiar grapes.
The list keeps growing, as does our interest in cataloguing grapes to help us understand what wines we can get from them. This, too, is fairly new; one of the earliest efforts to classify the grapes of a region was in 1807 in Andalusia, Spain, according to Wine Grapes.
Agroscope, the Swiss federal research station, in 2013 announced the birth of a new grape variety, Divico, a red wine named after a Swiss Helvetian mythical leader. What promise it held! This is the first Swiss grape variety and the rare one in the world to resist the three major fungal diseases that European growers face, powdery mildew (appeared in 1845), downy mildew (1870s) and botrytis blight. It is the result of a cross between two earlier crosses, Swiss grape Gamaret and the German Bronner. These, as with other disease-resistant grapes like the red Regent or white Solaris, are usually designed to avoid one disease and provide benefits such as colour or better tannins that might improve blends.
Could this be the real start of a shift to grapes that do not require herbicides, we all wondered.
How do we get new grapes?
New grape varieties were once the domain of Mother Nature, with spontaneous crossings occurring in vineyards and fields. Growers, and later professional nurseries, became adept at creating crossings (from two varieties of the same species) and hybrids (two varieties from two species).
Climate change has pushed us to look for new varieties that work better in cold northern climates as they warm up enough to grow grapes. Diseases are nothing new to farmers, but the main ones faced by European vineyards today, a set of fungal diseases, have been here for less than 200 years. These have been widely treated chemically for the past 80 years but as concern grows today about the use of herbicides and pesticides, the race is on to develop disease-resistant grape varieties. It’s big business.
Not yet miracle grapes, but it’s early days
Thinking we were at the start of a great new era in 2013 now seems simplistic, although Agroscope announced the release of five other disease-resistant grapes in 2018. Research that resulted in Divico began in 1996 and for 17 years the grapes that were kept as viable solutions from the thousands of descendants were given the code name code IRAC 2091. Divico wines are now on the market but our experience with them is in its infancy. Other countries, notably Italy, France and Germany, are also developing what are called PIWI grapes, resistant to diseases. Reactions are mixed, and politics have come into play – in France, questions are being raised about where these fit into the appellation system.
Critically, Divico allows growers to cut back dramatically on treatments, especially important for organic wines. Agroscope researcher Jean-Laurent Spring noted at a 2018 conference that more than 98% of Switzerland’s grapes are still Vitis vinifera, European grapes, which require 6 to 10 treatments a year to fight fungal diseases, whether the vineyard is organic or integrated production (IP). The only way to reduce this dramatically, he argues, is through new varieties.
Growers in Bramois, canton Valais, held a Divico conference in early April to allow professionals to learn more about the grape, where its development stands today and to taste 35 red wines and 2 rosés that are now being sold. We also tasted 7 Divona white wines from a new grape that comes from the same parents that produced Divico. Divona, also developed by Agroscope, was presented to the world in October 2018.
A special aspect of Switzerland’s new grapes, the Agroscope research team noted that day is that they have been developed and trialed by several wineries who worked closely with the research station over a number of years before the release. This might seem an obvious solution, but in other countries the research and vinification from new grapes is often carried out in government centres, then the new plants are released to growers. The process is faster but one result can be frustration and anger when wineries find grapes’ shortcomings out in the real world.
What the new grapes’ wines are like
Divico was described by Agroscope in 2013 when it debuted as having “the necessary capacity to produce wines that are very richly coloured and with high quality tannins. It also has an interesting aromatic profile that allows us to imagine a promising future as a single grape [varietal] wine or a blend.”
The down side
That promising future is not quite here yet, six years later, but there are signs we will get there. To a one, I found the wines at the Bramois tasting richly coloured, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. In my wine glass they were wonderfully deeply, intensely purple, but that purple seemed to seep everywhere, including onto the table that held the bottles, onto my lips and teeth and in particular my hands after pouring several wines. Impossible to keep my notes clean, a problem I don’t usually have. In fairness, these are young wines, and I’ve noticed a similar staining when judging at the Mondial des Merlots, with young Merlot wines.
The nose was generally less interesting than I expected, with some exceptions: at worst, rather neutral and at best the wines had pleasing notes of black fruits and stewed prunes with some sweet spices. The tannins are good and most of the wines had good structure. Here, Divico lives up to its promise. And yet, many of the wines seem to me to lack depth or character.
How to make it remains a question, and for this the conference in Bramois was useful. We live in a country where the overall quality of wines is so consistently good and often far better than just good, that we are surprised when a wine doesn’t quite make it. Many of the Divico wines I tasted seemed like works-in-progress. Looking at my notes now I see these slightly negative comments for various wines:
- nose a bit animal (closed?), mouth very smooth (too smooth?), then slightly woody
- balanced but doesn’t excite me
- deep fruit in the nose and mouth, but too extracted, rich
- fruit well balanced but too acidic, especially the finish
- over-oaked, too rich
- very clean with great nose but acidity too high.
You get the picture – we’re not quite there. But for growers, this was an exciting moment because it’s the first time so many Divico wines have been tasted together, organized by single grape wines, blends, oaked, not oaked.
The up side
There were several wines that worked for me, and I hope they will lead the way for others: Cave de Genève, whose first vintage has been out less than a year; Cave de la Côte near Morges, Vaud; Chambleau in Neuchatel, whose approach allows a classy and sulfite-free wine; Blaise Duboux (made in 300-litre vats, his oaked version was my favourite from this group – fruity nose and rich mouth) in Epesses; Paradou from Nax in Valais, a blend that I found best in this group; Marie-Bernard Gillioz from Grimisuat, Valais. The diverse terroirs indicate that this is a grape with potential to do well in many parts of Switzerland.
The wines were made in different ways, some blends, some single grape, but they all had in common a richly fruity nose of mostly black fruit aromas with some spices and a mouth that was clean, slightly chewy with good balance, a medium-long finish. By the end I began to realize that these are wines I would like to see in 5 years, 10 years – they have good aging potential and we might just be judging them too early, even though they are drinkable now.
Divona, the goddess of spring, a wine of hope
A brief word about the very young and very new white Divona wines: I liked them. These are wines I think we’ll see in growing numbers in shops and restaurants. Some lacked character, but the better ones had aromas of pear and white flowers, or citrus and exotic fruits, sometimes a mineral touch – they were varied. medium acidity and a relatively long finish. The Cave de Genève’s surprised me. It resembled a Sauvignon Blanc, apparently due to the use of aged barrels that were previously used for Chardonnay. Cave Paradou in Nax seems to me to have best mastered this new grape, with a pleasant wine that has character.
Agroscope, in presenting Divona to the world, described its work:
For 50 years now, Agroscope has developed numerous red and white grape varieties as part of its breeding programme. Classic crossing techniques (or hybridisation) made it possible to breed grape varieties with little susceptibility to grey mould (e.g. Gamaret and Garnoir). Since 1996, interspecific hybridisation techniques between European grapes and grape varieties with powdery- and downy-mildew resistance genes have been used in variety breeding. Both of these diseases require the numerous treatments typical of European viticulture, whether in integrated or organic production. These resistant grape varieties stem from wild species of American and Asian origin.
In order to expedite and optimise this process, Agroscope has developed a biochemical test technique for identifying resistant genotypes at the seedling stage. Potentially worthwhile candidates naturally synthesise compounds from the stilbene family to protect against fungal diseases. This approach allowed for the launch in 2013 of the first multiresistant red grape variety, Divico, whose development is highly promising. This has now been followed in 2018 by the first multiresistant white grape variety, Divona – to whose arrival we now propose a toast!
Related: Rare grapes, do we love their wines? E. Wallace, 20 April 2018