Why would you drink wine from grapes you’ve never heard of unless you’re on your honeymoon or an exotic vacation?
Just when you thought you were starting to understand wine because you could rattle off the names of a few grape varieties and even briefly describe the kind of wines they give, someone gets excited about grapes you’ve never heard of.
Grapes grown in such small quantities that you wonder why anyone bothers. Names of old grapes like Grosse Arvine, Lafnetscha, Rèze, Durize. New grapes called Divico, Cabernello and Nerolo.
And yet, rare and uncommon grapes are a hot topic among European wine people.
In France, the Wine Mosaic project brings together wineries from several countries that are interested in preserving Mediterranean “original” grape varieties. Native and specific to a region are the wines people get excited about.
“The standardization of grape varieties poses a threat to “vinodiversity”; some 30 major grape varieties account for about 70% of the world’s wine production,”
the group notes on its web site. It recently invited the public to a tasting of wines from grapes that seem obscure to many of us: Areni, Obeidy, Papaz Karasi, Pansa Blanca, Assyrtiko, Riveyrenc. Nothing dull or standard about these.
Switzerland is no exception. There are several reasons why rare grapes appeal. The growing interest in organic and biodynamic wines, with producers reconsidering grapes their forefathers grew. Appreciating the wisdom from those olden days. Appreciating one’s local heritage in an increasingly globalized business dominated by international grapes cultivated in several countries. And climate change is making growers more aware of the need to safeguard biodiversity.
Britain’s wine writer-reviewer Jancis Robinson drew up a list in 2012 for the Financial Times of “grape varieties you’ve never heard of“. One of them: “The only varietal Hitzkircher wine is made by Rebbaugesellschaft Hitzkirch in the village in Switzerland of the same name.” It’s no longer on their wine list, so perhaps it has died a quiet death in the past six years.
The Swiss are connaisseurs of fine craftsmanship in many fields, one of which is wine. In a small wine country like Switzerland, where virtually all of the wineries make hand-crafted artisanal wines from stamp-sized vineyards, people learn young to appreciate non-industrial wines. They’re quick to compare village A to village B, same grape, different vigneron, different terroir. A new or very old grape variety stirs interest.
The Chanton winery in Brig, Valais, has been known for several years as the best place to find historic Swiss grape variety wines, all with productions of just a few hundred bottles a year. Their wines include: Gwäss, Himbertscha, Plantscher and others you’re not likely to find elsewhere, although small quantities of Lafnetscha are produced by others (Gregor Kuonen winery in Salgesch).
Many of the rare grapes have a rich history. In Switzerland, some were once hugely popular – Rèze in Valais was the main white grape for many years – but they came perilously close to extinction after phylloxera wiped out vineyards. Growers replaced them with varieties that ripened earlier or that were easier to work. Rèze gave way to Fendant (Chasselas), but in the past 20 years a handful of growers, with Serge Heymoz at Cave les Sentes in the lead, have revived it, albeit in small numbers. Other grapes came close to the brink but had a more successful comeback: Cornalin is considered one of canton Valais’s star wines today, even though its special requirements mean it will never be widely grown.
The latest grape being coddled back to life is the once much admired Grosse Arvine, thanks to Fully producers Olivier Pittet and Benoît Dorsaz. DNA tests indicate it is probably an offshoot of Petite Arvine and another, perhaps now lost grape. They have struggled to get any funding for the long, laborious task of bringing it back, which involves testing and weeding out any new vines that don’t have a clean genetic line or that have weaknesses for disease. Experimenting with it should give a wine that is acceptable to today’s drinkers but not necessarily like the wine available scores of years ago. Dorsaz bottled “just a couple of crates” of the 2016 (first vintage was 2015); he certainly won’t be making a profit anytime soon from this wine.
Other rare grapes are new grape varieties, usually crosses created by researchers to give wineries disease-resistant grapes or ones that will help give balance to blends. In Switzerland most of these come from Changin Agroscope, the federal agricultural research institute near Nyon, Vaud. Some have been widely adopted, such as the cross Gamaret, created about 50 years ago.
In 2017 Agroscope announced it was releasing five new grapes after several years of testing them. Each is a cross of Gamaret and another variety to create grapes for Switzerland’s different wine regions: southern-style grapes that are resistant to botrytis bunch rot (gray rot), the grape disease that is most widespread in the country. It will be a few years before any become household names.
Divico, released in 2013, is one of the big stars in the world of new wines, designed to be resistant to all major grape diseases – powdery mildew, downy mildew and botrytis. Critically, it allows growers to cut back dramatically on treatments, especially important for organic wines. The hope these grapes hold out to growers prompted the Valais Wine Museum in Sierre to offer a conference 17 April with Agroscope researcher Jean-Laurent Spring; he presented the current state of disease-resistant grapes. He noted 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.
Divico’s popularity is growing, but it remains a rare wine, as does another relatively new grape, Galotta, in the sense that only small numbers of wineries are making wine with them. However, these include some of the country’s best wineries, and as their success with these grapes increases, other wineries will likely follow.
[Just as I was about to hit the “publish” button here, a message came in from the Cave de Genève saying they will bottle their first Divico vintage later this year – you can get an early taste of it 26 May during the cantonal wineries open day]
If all you want from wine is a reliably good wine that holds no surprises, then stick with standard wines. Your alternative is to educate your senses and explore the past and the future of wines, which is what rare wines offer you.