I took a very interesting elective in college called “The Bible as Literature.” My first choice, “History of the Old South: A look at Antebellum Society” didn’t fit into my schedule and the biblical course seemed like an intriguing topic given the only way I had ever looked at the Bible was from a religious context. It was an enlightening class and one of the questions we had to answer in essay form was the following one;
“Is the Cannon Closed?”
Meaning, could any new books (or newly discovered books) ever be added to the bible and be accepted as valid gospel the way the current layout has been.
What does this have to do with wine you may be asking yourself?
A similar question popped into my head while I was going over my German grape varieties for an upcoming WSET Level 3 class I taught this weekend.
“What does it take for new crosses to become classic varieties?”
Germany has quite a few crossed varieties that make up some of the top 5 varieties grown there. They include Muller-Thurgau, a variety crossed in 1882 by Dr Hermann Muller (born in Thurgau), which is Riesling crossed with Madeleine Royal (a table grape) and Dornfelder bred in 1956 by August Herold a cross of Helfensteiner and Heroldrebe (an earlier cross by the same breeder). None of these are widely considered to be great varieties on the global scale. Germany’s greatest variety, Riesling, has not yet reached the masses the way some of us Riesling lovers would have liked it to. Jancis Robinson recently commented on this in one recent post.
That makes me wonder, if Riesling can’t catch on then what chance do any of the “new” varieties have?
Let’s face it. According to Carole Meredith’s DNA research at UC Davis, Cabernet Sauvignon was a chance crossing of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc likely sometime in the 17th century. It took close to 400 years for Cabernet to become the king that it is. That’s not exactly a rapid rise to fame but if one was to graph acres planted over those 400 years, the exponential growth that Cab has seen over the past 50 year probably made the previous 350 look like a flat line.
So does this mean that if a new cross really looked like it had potential, it would be embraced faster than an already existing variety? It is possible but I would be highly skeptical. I think a bias exists against new varieties, particularly those that may be unfortunate enough to be called “hybrids”, meaning a cross of a Vitis vinifera with a non vinifera. I would like to believe that the wine community would have an open mind when it comes to trying out these varieties but deep down, I don’t think that is the case.
My Alma Mater, Cornell, has been churning out new and improved varieties for many decades but none of them have a very wide appreciation in the winemaking community. See all of them here. All bred to be easier to grow, deeper color, more resistant to fungal infections. Who wouldn’t want to plant a vine that they didn’t have to worry about spraying? It would make Organic viticulture so much easier, particularly in humid environments.
But does it make as good quality as our existing varieties? I think it is highly unlikely that growers in what we consider classic wine regions would try out some of these new varieties. Why, you ask? It’s supply and demand. There is no demand for varieties that consumers have never heard about. Sommeliers, even though most are looking for new and different, are not clamoring for the newest varieties on the scene. The rise now is among traditional varieties native to their mother countries that have been lost for ages but are now being resurrected by growers wanting to salvage the remaining remnants of their viticultural history. A noble effort and one which should not be discounted but does this also hold true for the native grapes of the US? I don’t think so, because they are not vinifera species as the European varieties are.
At some point in wine history the “classic” international varieties were established. I’m not going to venture a guess as to when exactly, but it happened. After that point no other varieties are likely to rise to the global greatness that Cabernet or Chardonnay have enjoyed since. Like the number of books in the bible, the door has been closed and it is unlikely that it will be opened again. This ventures the question as to why we keep trying to breed new varieties? I suppose it is in search of the elusive variety that makes vinifera quality wine with better resistance to disease resulting in less chemicals sprayed. It is a noble cause but one with innumerable failures before seeing success.
Or perhaps the future does not lie in global powerhouse varieties but in sparingly planted regionally specialized varieties similar to craft spirits and craft beer that the interested consumer can seek out. An exceptionally niche industry led by the “ABC movement” (Anything but Chardonnay) driving customers to the new and different. In that case, breed away grape breeders. The future may be brighter than I can imagine. I hope so.
What do you think it would take for new varieties to become widely accepted?