When you think of endangered species, your mind no doubt turns first to endangered animals; the panda, the polar bear, the blue whale. However, the kingdom of mammals is not the only one to face threats – and certain grape varieties may be just as rare and vulnerable as the panda.
According to Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, there are 1,368 known varieties in the world. Yet as much as 70% of the wine made, sold and consumed around the world is made from just 30 varietals.
Of course, some will point out that certain grape varieties are no longer grown because they simply do not make good wine – but in other cases, their loss would truly be a tragedy for the wine drinkers of the future.
There are many factors that can put vines at risk; drought and other unseasonable weather conditions, use of herbicides and other chemicals, and, of course, disease. The pest phylloxera, which caused the Great French Wine Blight of 1863, is a prime example. Since that first appearance, it has not only affected vines in France, but across Europe – meaning that many have needed to be grafted with American rootstock in order to survive. It has also threatened New World wines; today, the only wine producing country where phylloxera is not present is Chile, because it is isolated from other countries by desert, mountains and oceans.
Only a few vineyards in France remain unaffected by phylloxera. Thus, any wine produced from such vineyards is rare and sought after. A prime example is Bollinger’s Vieilles Vignes Françaises Champagne, made from ungrafted vines grown on just under an acre of land; having lost one of their vineyards to the pest just twelve years ago, the quantity of this vintage is today limited and each bottle numbered.
So, if you’re seeking to fill your wine cellar with endangered vintages, which varieties might you consider?
Abouriou – Grown on a small vineyard in Russian River Valley, California, as well as on a few hundred acres of its Southwest France home, this high-tannin, low-acid grape provides a deep and intense vintage.
Zibibbo – Also known as Muscat of Alexandria, and thought to be one of the oldest vines in existence, this variety is used to make Italy’s Passito wines. The traditional cultivation techniques used to grow them on the island of Pantellaria has been inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Hitzkircher – This Swiss variety is found only in one place – the village of the same name. It’s said to bear similarities to Briegler and Bondola varieties.
Gorgollassa – Indigenous to the island of Mallorca, this variety was virtually extinct until 1998, when four vines were located and propagated into 200 new vines.
With over a thousand of these lesser-known varieties to choose from, it would seem that there’s never been a better time to support smaller growers, try new varieties, and perhaps save your new favourite grape from being consigned to the pages of history.