Tag Archives: Grape Varieties

Challenging Personalities: Exploring the Tough to Grow Varieties*

Over the years, multiple varieties have made the news for one reason or another.  Some, like Gewurztraminer, suffer from difficult to pronounce names.  Others suffer from identity challenges. Chardonnay anyone?  Still more are actually difficult to get to a bottle in once piece without the high involvement of the dedicated growers to make quality wine.  Here are a few of those challenging personalities and how much work needs to be done behind the scenes to create our favorite wines.

Zinfandel – The Indecisive One

Zinfandel has a tough issue.  Is it a rose or is it a serious red?  Is it going to be high alcohol or more moderate? Consumers are often not sure because, inherently, this variety is naturally indecisive. It tends to ripen extremely unevenly so you can have huge spans of ripeness within the same cluster.  This makes picking calls very tough since the Brix can vary so much from cluster to cluster.  Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Company says he has seen clusters with 21 Brix berries and 28 Brix berries. “Part of the trick of growing Zinfandel is that you have to be comfortable with lack of some uniformity.”

Zinfandel also has very tight clusters and thin skins which makes it prone to rot. Twain-Peterson sees issues with this as well.  “The biggest year to year issue I see is the potential for botrytis where the wing lies on top of the main cluster. It ripens a little behind and can be heavy, […] weighing down on the rest of the cluster.” This pressure on the thin skins can cause the berries to burst and introduce botrytis into the clusters. “We battle this by almost always dropping wings on vineyards with higher historical botrytis pressure.”

Pinot Noir – The Drama Queen                                                                         

Pinot Noir has always had a reputation for being tough to grow.  You can look at it wrong and it will rot.  It is prone to diseases, sunburn, berry splitting, and nutrient issues.  Making high quality Pinot Noir is a labor of love but those growers who have taken it on have found ways to make it work for them.  In upstate NY, with high humidity and cool growing conditions Pinot Noir can be especially challenging. Thirsty Owl Wine Company winemaker and vineyard manager, Shawn Kime states “Intense canopy management and a prudent spray program are needed throughout the season long to allow grapes to reach their full potential. Vine balance is also extremely important. This doesn’t just mean not over cropping, but also not under cropping. Under cropped vines have too much vegetative growth and can be more susceptible to berry splitting and late season rot.”

Carneros Grower, Jennifer Thomson of Thomson Vineyards states “genetically many Pinot Noir clones display thin skins, tight clusters and compact berry formation which is a haven for pests and makes Integrated Pest Management essential for growing high quality Pinot Noir.” Grape berry moth, Mealy bug, and a host of other pests love Pinot Noir for its nooks and crannies in which to hide.  She tries to achieve “a balance between location, clone and seasonal characteristics” in order to grow great Pinot Noir.

Petit Verdot – The Goth

Envision walking into a vineyard that is otherwise happy and healthy except for one block which looks yellow, stressed, and spindly. Chances are that block is Petit Verdot.  It has a high propensity for over-cropping and generally doesn’t make very high quality wine unless it looks stressed.  Robert Mondavi Winery Vineyard Manager, Matt Ashby, points to extreme crop thinning to maintain quality.  “It will regularly grow 4 clusters per shoot, and it is a low vigor variety [with] very light pruning weights, so it will be out of balance for high quality wine if it is not thinned aggressively.  For Mondavi this means 1 cluster per shoot.” Another grower who chose to remain anonymous says “It’s a grey variety.  It always looks a little depressed when you are growing it properly.”

Rhone Whites – The Clique

This group of varieties tend to run in packs, meaning they are grown in similar locations, and they all have their own quirks. Viognier is an irregular setting variety which tends to only develop flavors towards the high end of the Brix scale and dump acid like last week’s leftovers anywhere outside of the Northern Rhone.  When asked about the challenges of Viognier, Stuart Bewley of Alder Springs Vineyard in Mendocino, CA, replied “The variety is prone to get mildew so you have to be on top of your spray or dust program.” Then he said he would not classify Viognier as the most difficult to grow. According to Bewley, Rousanne is far more challenging to grow.  “It shatters at set, it gets both mildew and botrytis and it is very hard to ripen.  It always comes in after Viognier or Marsanne.  Even Picpoul is easier to grow.”  Marsanne tends to set a heavy crop leading Bewley to come back and thin. “We must go through the blocks and cut off 50% to 75% of the fruit to make great wines.  The great thing is that these varieties make wonderful wines if cropped at a low yield.”

There are so many varieties in the world, it would be impossible to name all the difficult ones at one time. Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot, and the Rhone Whites tend to have the greatest reputation for being finicky but there will always be growers out there willing to deal with their challenging personalities.

* This article was originally written by me and published on Snooth.com however I also really wanted to share it with my readers that may not have had the chance to see it there. This version is the un-edited original sent to Snooth.com and does not contain any omissions or editing from their version.

Is the Canon Closed Or What Does it Take for New Crosses to Become Classic Varieties?

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 Canon 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?