Tasting History – Lost Grapes Found

Tim's Wine Market

I am an avid reader, often working on several books at the same time. At any given time I am reading books about some facet of food, religion, business, and there is usually a crime novel thrown in too. Currently the bedside read demanding my attention is Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino. 

Eating to Extinction is the story of how, in the 20th century, we traded versatility in our food supply for reliable, high yielding and cost effective foods, sacrificing the diversity developed by farmers over hundreds of generations. One only needs to look at citrus greening that is effecting the remnants of our orange groves here in Florida to understand the problem. A monoculture of genetically selected plants, developed specifically for one trait, such as high yields, often lacks the defense mechanisms to ward off new pests, be it bugs or disease.  

Part of our features this week are wines by Juan Carlos Sancha, a university professor and expert in the field of viticulture, who is challenging the conventional wisdom that one grape variety is the only path to success. Sancha recognizes that in Rioja, his region of Spain, too many acres of vines are dedicated to Tempranillo. While a prolific producer, the variety needs a lot of water and struggles to retain acidity when ripe. These are bad characteristics in a place where temperatures have risen almost 2 degrees Celsius in the past thirty years and water is in short supply. Consequently, he farms 27 different grape varieties, many that were popular in Rioja before Spain’s civil war, looking for options to help farmers cope in the new climate paradigm. 

Across Spain and Italy there are dozens of other winemakers challenging the status quo, looking back to varieties that were popular before the wars. In many cases these varieties were dropped because of low production, rather than flavor, with preferential treatment given to higher-yielding varieties. Younger winemakers are seeking out these old varieties in an attempt to bring more authentic character to their wines. Grapes like Tannat, Nero di Troia, Pignolo, Ruche and Maturana Blanca are just a few of the hundreds of grapes that winemakers are seeking out, to make wines that are distinctive and still reflect their sense of place. If you are someone who thinks seriously about your food and wine, then give some of these “new” varieties a try. It is like discovering a whole new world of wine that is fun and exciting as you frequently are also tasting history.