A recent news item on Decanter’s web site (http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/584678/cabernet-sauvignon-tops-global-grape-variety-league-study?utm_source=Cheetahmail&utm_medium=email&utm_content=news+alert+link+080114&utm_campaign=Newsletter-080114) caught my eye. Not that I find it especially newsworthy that cabernet sauvignon is so very popular around the world. I also don’t want to join any chorus of lamentation that diversity is diminishing. After all, grape growers and winemakers have to make a living, so they tend to plant what they think can provide them with that. The extreme alternative could be that it does not pay to make wine, and where would we wine lovers be without wine?
Also, diversity could be said to be shrinking in and of itself, as DNA profiling leads to the (probably unsurprising) conclusion that many grape varieties thought to be unique are actually widespread under other names. We should not forget, either, that there is endless diversity and interest to be had from the study of the same grape variety under different conditions.
No, what got me thinking is that the top-10 list is so far from reflecting what I drink and like the most. To be sure, I do drink much wine from some of those varieties, pinot noir in particular, but there is a completely different world out there in terms of grape varieties than what is on that list, and I for one don’t think that diversity is necessarily threatened.
Norwegian wine writer Per Mæleng once wrote a very interesting piece in the excellent Norwegian wine magazine Vinforum, in which he divided wine aficionados into two basic groups: Those who drink wine in order to be confirmed in their beliefs and/or status, and those who drink it for the endless variety, essentially the incessantly curious, the thrill seekers. This chimes well with subsequent American research into what makes some people (and I am paraphrasing here) timid and conservative and others outgoing and experimenting, in political terms (social) conservatives versus (social) liberals. It apparently turns out that people are born that way.
In that context, I am very much a thrill seeker, or social liberal if you want, and I quickly get bored with encountering the same type of wines again and again. I am seeking out new varieties to try, new places that make wine, new producers, new styles to experience, greater heights to savour. I have a craving for the weird and wonderful. I like to think of myself as having few preconceptions about how a wine should be made or what it should taste like. Not for me the idea that a red wine cannot be great unless it is a particular style of cool-fruited Grand Cru Burgundy (although those, too, are glorious). I want to encounter wine on its own premises, so if a particular variety, producer or place has a particular expression, I try to take it at face value. This openness is essential to who I am in wine terms, but is by no means without exceptions. For instance, I do tend to prefer balanced wines, irrespective of size, and I do tend to dislike huge, over-extracted, alcoholic wines of low acidity; I can also become extremely fundamentalist on the issue of what proper Barolo tastes like.
I have always been like that in terms of wine. Imagine my thrill when someone dropped in on a tasting we once had in the mid-90’ies with a small bottle of wine he had made himself from grapes of the ghastly himrod variety picked in his father’s garden in a suburb of Copenhagen! That someone was Danish wine entrepreneur and prophet Michael Gundersen, now famous and a great friend. Most recently, I have been looking a bit into the evasive subject of original Israeli/Palestinian grape varieties. I despaired of the prospect of facing an endless stream of cabernet, syrah and chardonnay from one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world and thought that there must be something else, something ancient, something original? (The most promising outlook from Israel in the short to medium term, by the way, looks to me to be old-vine carignan, but I sincerely hope they find worthy indigenous varieties.)
I guess it is only natural that one mentally converts one’s own personal traits into what one considers essential virtues. At any rate, I tend to think that those wine drinkers who limit themselves to the well-known, and who only like or think highly of wines of one or a few very particular ilks, are missing out on an essential attraction in the world of wine, namely that of the sheer diversity and potential for wonderment, the vast span of styles, hues, textures (as opposed to the minute variations that can also be intellectually stimulating). I also tend to think that for those who work with tasting and rating wine, no matter how specialized, there must exist some sort of unspoken obligation to stay alert and open, to taste as many different wines as they can, and to keep trying to widen their horizons. I really do think that new wines, or new ways to make old wines, or even significantly increased quality in something already existing, can open one’s eyes and fundamentally change one’s tastes, preferences and framework of references.
Of course, that sort of thinking has a tendency to appeal to those already thinking along the same lines. Those who do not think like that, the social conservatives if you want, may not see the merit in reserving one’s judgment or keeping an open mind, and if that makes them happy, then let them. They may even think that my approach is a scatterbrained, haphazard way of approaching wine. I, for one, have no inclinitation towards acting as a thought policeman, so won’t criticize. But being who and how I am I wonder why one would one limit oneself to a narrower pursuit.
I should worry over the potential loss of (wine/vine) diversity, for that is what I seek, but I am optimistic. There are many-many people around the world – legislators, bureaucrats, producers, wine communicators and wine drinkers – who are vinous thrill seekers too. There is an entire world out there growing up in wine terms, and with time that entire world will also seek diversity. And there are lots of crazy, wonderful, spirited producers who stand ready to slake that thirst for diversity, with their incessant drive towards experimentation, or their particular pride in a local, forgotten variety that they feel needs to be brought to its full potential and glory. There are lots of that type of people in “my” Italy, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, or at the very least probably more ancient, forgotten varieties to bring forth than anywhere else.
These people abound elsewhere too, though. I immediately think of a quirky, experimenting, restless soul such as Erl Happ of Happs/Three Hills in the Margaret River area of Western Australia. I count Erl’s wines as being among the best in Margaret River, yet in terms of consistency, he is possibly outdone by others. That is because he is always experimenting, always planting new varieties, always taking on the challenge of mastering another variety or method. I find it fascinating to follow such a process, infinitely more interesting than merely watching others issuing another cabernet or chardonnay in the usual style and quality. Follow Erl, and you are much more likely to glimpse the future and potential of Margaret River than with any other producer, even if some people think that Margaret River is by now a well-established, world-class producer of cabernet and chardonnay only. It can do so much more and so many other things, some of them possibly even better.
I don’t think we will be lacking diversity in the future. On the contrary, I think we will see much diversity as yet undreamt of. Yes, the plantings of certain individual varieties may have increased enormously in percentage terms, and yes, it may be to the detriment of some varieties in certain areas, but:
– Vinegrowing and winemaking is spreading across the globe; that gives you added diversity in and of itself
– Exactly how many grape varieties of any worth are actually completely disappearing?
– Exactly who would lament the further loss of airén acreage?
– What abundance of as-yet “undiscovered” varieties remains? Southern Italy, for example, provides “new” varieties regularly, some of which suddenly spread like wildfire. There may be a staggering number of grape varieties as yet uncatalogued in the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Subcontinent and China.
– There are lots of people actually taking up the challenge of cataloguing and saving ancient, rare or forgotten varieties. There are several such projects in France, for instance, and Italy has an entire wine fair dedicated to autochthonous varieties. In Israel, they have actually started research on indigenous varieties. These are just a few examples out of many around the world.
And no: You won’t get a list from me as to my top 10 grape varieties. I have no such list, I don’t want such a list, and it would change more or less daily anyway. The point is the thrill of the new, the unknown, the discovery, the potential or realized greatness. You don’t catch all that by limiting yourself to 10-best-lists.
So go out and find it, with a vengeance. There’s lots of it, with more coming all the time, and you will be happily engaged in the most pleasurable of pursuits for life.