Alongside climate, soil, and the work of winegrowers, grapes are at the heart of the wine. All these factors come together to form what the French call terroir. No vineyard can enjoy exactly the same rainfall, sunshine, wind, slate or chalk soils, but they can share grape varieties. Thus, to understand better our knowledge of wines and winemaking, it is essential to understand the different kinds of grapes grown around the world and how they adapt to each location.
There are countless varieties of grapes cultivated all around the world. For centuries and centuries, people have grown and used grapes to make wine in every continent – America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Oceania. A widely diverse range of wines but all with one thing in common: grapes.
The first difference between grapes that usually comes to mind is their color. And the colors we usually think of are red or white. However, there are other variations. There are greyish (red) grapes whose color varies from lead grey to an intense shade of pink and also teinturier grapes, with a reddish-colored flesh rather than the more common white flesh of the immense majority of grapes, both red and white.
Grapes may be divided into groups of aromatic grapes or non-aromatic ones; that is, they can be more or less fragrant. Grapes such as Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc are considered to be very aromatic whereas others like Airén or Pinot Blanc produce more discrete wines. Other differences between grapes include the fact that some are more tannic while others have a more fragile structure. They can be more acidic or less acidic, and also the alcohol content each kind of grape produces varies. Getting to know the different varieties of grapes is key to getting to know and understand the features of different kinds of wine.
Wines produced from just one variety of grape are known as single-variety wines, although some appellations also allow this term to be used when there is a small percentage of other grape varieties in the final blend.
Although it seems an easy and logical way to describe wines, the concept of marketing wines as single-variety ones is in fact relatively new. Until relatively recently, the grape variety used to produce a wine was not an important factor to bear in mind. Very few wine-drinkers paid attention to it and very few wineries labeled their wines with the varieties they used. French wines, for example, were extremely popular even though winemakers seldom included the variety on the label. Customers would ask for a Bordeaux or a Rioja wine, choosing a wine for its origin rather than whether it was made from Pinot Noir or Tempranillo.
This changed dramatically when many wine producers from the New World decided to put their energy behind single-variety wines in the 1960s and 1970s, proudly labeling their products as such – with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Chardonnay becoming extremely popular very quickly. The idea then reached wineries in Europe where it soon took off too.
By getting to know single-variety wines we learn about the essence of wine as each grape variety behaves differently in a certain kind of terroir. Looking at just one variety, it becomes easier to understand and appreciate how soils, climates, and work affect their expressiveness. Once you can see the differences between the most popular varieties in the world, it is possible to distinguish the role each one plays in different blends and the work and decisions winemakers have to carry out before bottling their wines.
Local varieties and worldwide varieties
There are said to be over 10,000 different grape varieties in the world. However, most of them apparently originated in the same area.
Around the year 5000 BC, the inhabitants of what is now known as Georgia and Armenia were intrigued by the red fruit growing on a kind of climbing plant. They picked the fruit and tried it. Liking it, they continued to eat it and gradually discovered, for example, that fruit collected at a later date was sweeter. They even began to hoard fruit to eat later. Much to their surprise, some of these stored grapes accidentally started to ferment and create alcohol which had an inebriating effect on them – an effect they did not dislike.
Repeating these early results, they started to domesticate these vines and control their growth and harvest, trying different ways to make this early kind of wine. As humans traveled, they took the idea of winemaking with them wherever they went. They probably attempted to domesticate different varieties of wild vines in different parts of the world. As they continued to travel, they took plants with them, which cross-bred with local vines, eventually leading to the almost infinite range of varieties we know nowadays. Those which adapted well to a specific territory and were used for centuries to produce wine there are what we now call local varieties.
However, there are vines that are found and flourish in many different regions around the world and are usually very popular internationally. We call these plants international varieties. Examples of local varieties are Sumoll or Humagne Rouge (Cornalin d’Aoste), found almost exclusively in Catalonia and Switzerland respectively, whereas Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling are known as international varieties, having traveled far and wide from their original locations.