The vast majority of current international grape varietals–which is to say, grape varietals which have found homes in regions other than where they originated–are French in origin. These are the grapes that even the most casual wine drinker knows: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Pinot Noir. Even Pinot Grigio, despite California’s preference for using its Italian name, is Burgundian in origin.
There are numerous reasons for this. Europe’s phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800s radically changed the composition of its vineyards, greatly reducing once thriving regional varietals in favor of more durable and higher-yielding vines. This was especially true in France, where the major grapes of Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the Rhone Valley came to dominate wine making. In turn, French wine’s predominance in the fine wine markets of the British Empire and the American Northeast meant that fine wine was literally synonymous with French wine in much of the New World throughout the first half of the 20th Century. Therefore, as New World wine making diversified from simple table wine to include the production of wine that would compete with premium Old World offerings, those same French grapes led the way. This was particularly true in the Anglo-Sphere which, until the recent rise of Argentina and Chile as global wine making powers, was the home of the only major New World wine producing nations.
But there are great grapes that don’t come from France which have thankfully seen an emergence/resurgence in popularity in American wine making. I imagine this is also happening in Australia, New Zealand and other New World wine countries but since few if any of these wines are exported, I’m not well aware of the current trends. Anyone who has insight into these markets, please comment below.
So which grapes are working to push back Gallic dominance in New World wine making and helping to build a new Vitis viniferaplurality?
Sangiovese and Barbera, two of the principal red grapes of Italy, have long been planted in California. Barbera in particular was widespread in California’s Central Valley where it was used for its color in jug wine blends. With the increasing popularity of Italian wines in the United States, there has been an increase in Sangiovese and Barbera plantings and an increase in single-varietal premium bottlings of these grapes. I’ve particularly enjoyed Sangiovese from the Sierra Foothills and Eastern Washington and Barbera from the California Central Coast.
Tempranillo. The dominant grape of Spain and Portugal and a world class grape in its own right, Tempranillo has begun to take quite nicely to hillier parts of California, particularly the Sierra Foothills and parts of San Luis Obispo County. The grape is also growing very well in Mexico and might represent the first premium export offering for the Mexican wine industry.
Garnacha and Carinena are two grapes oft-mistaken for French, but which both in fact originate in Northern Spain (although some believe that Garnacha originated on Sardinia as the grape Canonau). Both of these grapes are prized for their high yields and drought-resistance and they have long been used in California and Australia for bulk wine production as they do well in hot, dry climates. When produced without care, Garnacha (Grenache in France, Australia and the USA) can become a ripe, cloying fruit bomb and Carinena (known as Mazuelo in Rioja and Carignan in France, Australia and the USA) overly astringent. However, in the right location and with attentive farming, both grapes can produce lovely, complex medium-to-full bodied wines and, in my own opinion, are two of the most promising of California’s new-old wave of red varietals. Some Carinena vineyards in California are also among the oldest plantings in the state and yield some very interesting wines.
And what about white wine? The New World has never been as well-regarded for its white wines as for its reds, but that is slowly changing as wine makers move away from the oak-dominated Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs that were synonymous with California white wine for so long. Garnacha Blanca (Grenache Blanc) is being made into very interesting wine on the California Central Coast, although much of it is also being rendered flabby and generic due to overripe fruit and too much oak. The Galician Albarino grape (which, to be fair, may be French or at least Alsatian in origin) is growing well in Lodi and Sonoma County and the Portuguese grape Verdelho is also being grown in Lodi with success, but since both of these grapes are also prone to over-ripeness in the California sun, wines made from these grapes have been a mixed bag so far. While I’m excited that there is Gruner Veltliner growing in San Luis Obispo County, so far the few California Gruners I’ve had have been disappointing, especially when compared against the great ones being imported from Austria and northeast Italy. It might just be the venerable German Riesling that is producing the most interesting New World white wine in areas like Washington State, California’s Mendocino County, upstate New York, New Zealand and Australia.
I have nothing against French grape varietals, but I’m encouraged by the growing popularity of grapes from other parts of the Old World in new parts of the New. This open-mindedness and willingness to experiment will move New World wine making closer to building the tradition and terroir that define the great wines of Europe as wine makers and grape growers in California and beyond work toward finding the ideal grapes to grow in each unique corner of the globe.