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mardi, 01 mars 2016



Claude Gilois


There is no precise definition of this group of grapes know as international varieties.

It would be logical to think that such a definition would be based on the most widely planted varieties and/or on French varieties, as France possesses a long history in matching varietals, terroirs and climates. A study by two economists from Adelaide University (1) based on vineyards from 44 countries covering more than 500 viticultural regions (99% of the planet’s total vineyards) identified 1,271 different varieties. The OIV (Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin) has more than 6,000 in its database, while Jancis Robinson, the specialist on grape varieties, records 1,340 worldwide. The conclusion of the two economists’ study may appear at first glance to be somewhat surprising.


The most planted varieties are :


1          Cabernet Sauvignon: 290,091 ha (+31% since the year 2000) 6.3% of the world’s varieties

2          Merlot: 267,169 ha (+26 % since 2000) 6% of the world’s varieties

3          Airen: 252,364 ha (-35 % since 2000) 5% of the world’s varieties

4          Tempranillo: 232,561 ha (+150% since 2000) 5% of the world’s varieties

5          Chardonnay: 198,793 ha (+37% since 2000) 4% of the world’s varieties

6          Syrah: 185,568 ha (+83% since 2000) 4% of the world’s varieties

7          Grenache Noir: 184,735 ha (-14% since 2000) 4% of the world’s varieties

8          Sauvignon Blanc: 110,138 ha (+70% since 2000) 2% of the world’s varieties

9          Trebbiano Toscano Blanc: 109,772 ha (-20% since 2000) 2% of the world’s varieties

10        Pinot Noir: 86,662 ha (+45% since 2000) 2% of the world’s varieties


It is a little surprising to see Airen and Trebbiano Toscano (also called Ugni Blanc in France) to figure in the list of the most widely planted varieties, but grapes from these varieties are mostly used to make brandy. If we remove these two from the list and substitute them by the two in the 11th and 12th position, Mazuelo (Carignan) and Bobal, we obtain a better picture of the quantitative world distribution of the varieties used to make wine.


We can observe that the definition of international grape varieties corresponds to neither French varietals (even if they are mostly French) nor to the most widely planted varieties in the world. The Tempranillo and the Bobal are pretty much exclusive to Spain and they have not produced any great wines outside this country. Mazuelo (Carignan) is known outside Spain, in particular in the South of France, but it is being uprooted at an alarming speed. In my opinion they cannot be considered as international varieties.


So, in fact, the definition of International grape varieties can be resumed as a group of 7 varieties, the Magnificent Seven (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc) that the New World countries have adopted to develop their viticulture and constitute 28% of the world’s total grape varieties.



'The spectre of indigenous grape varieties is haunting the world: all the powers of the old world have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre, including the most influential writers, distinguished oenologists, official institutes (including the INAO), not forgetting the investors more interested by the return on investment than wine they produce.' 

A culture emerged in the 1980’s that instilled a strong belief that great wines could not be made outside international varieties and that indigenous varieties were superfluous: wine critics largely ignore them and openly admit that only a handful of varieties are worth cultivating; oenologists do not work with them; official institutes encourage the uprooting of well-adapted varieties such as Carignan in the South of France to be replaced by Syrah which does not do well in most cases, but which is easier to commercialize; investors plant hectares of them while there are perfectly good indigenous old vines grape varieties far better suited to the local conditions. The Penedès region in Spain is probably the best caricature example of this philosophy. As is often the case, the situation is often salvaged at the 11th hour by a handful of winegrowers attempting to save the cultural and national heritage.


So then, which grape varieties, outside the ‘magnificent seven’ are able to produce great wines?. The few given below are but part of a list, which is certainly not exhaustive.




Praise where praise is due, Nebiolo is one of the world's greatest varieties that expresses itself marvelously on the terroirs of Barolo and Barbaresco in Piedmont in northern Italy. It is also planted on the hills of Langue and on the more sandy soil of Roero (sold either as Roero of Nebiolo d'Alba) where it expresses its grace and finesse earlier than those grown in Barolo and Barbaresco. There are only 200 hectares planted, other terroirs being unsuitable. Known at least since as far back as the 14th century under the name of Nubiola, it acquired full recognition in the 19th century before reaching new heights in the 1980s and 1990s. The definition of the Nebiolo terroirs is as precise and as complicated as the definition of the Burgundy terroirs. Piedmont producers often compare their wines to Pinot Noir and it is easy to understand why. It also shares other characteristics with Pinot Noir in particular with its ability to produce sub varieties. There are three main styles of Nebiolo, even though  differences have been reduced since the 1980s. The ‘heavyweights’ with maturation in French new oak casks that are the style of Conterno, Scavino, Conterno Fantino or to a lesser degree La Spinetta. There are the distinguished and refined styles, often very austere in early life, found in Gaja, Sandrone, Sottimano and Voerzio which utilise a mixture of oak barrels and Slovenian casks called botti di rovere. The third category is best described as traditionalist as they do not use new wood only Slovenian casks. There are wines that very tight at an early age, but they mature beautifully to reach their peak after 30-40 years when they exhibit extraordinary complexity and purity.  The best are from Roagna, Rinaldi, Mascarello and Cappellano. 






This is the most widely planted grape variety in Italy with 100,000 hectares, but it is in Tuscany where it gives its best results with appellations such as Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Morellino di Scansano. It is in Brunello that this grape variety gives its best results with wines of high aromatic density, tannins and elegance. Strangely, the region is a relatively new one for a country with such a long history of vine growing. Brunello is the brainchild of only one winegrower, Ferruccio Biondi-Santi who planted a clone of Sangiovese, now known as Brunello, in the 1970s, but when it was discovered that the region could produce such superb wines, it was a bit like the gold rush, winegrowers flooded the region, planting took place everywhere, even sometimes on terroirs that were not the most suitable for Brunello giving broader wines without the perfume and the density of the grape variety.  Given the price of the wines, the temptation became great for some growers to ‘improve’ their wines by blending varieties other than Brunello, which is the only grape variety allowed for both Brunello and Rosso. In 2008, one of the greatest scandals even seen in the wine trade erupted and soon became know as the ‘Brunellogate’. The authorities seized the entire production of some twenty domains, amongst which were some big names such as Argiano and Banfi, about 6.32 million litres were seized. The conflict was resolved by one of those agreements that could probably only take place in Italy. Some of the domains were allowed to sell their wines declassified as Toscan Rosso IGT (an admission of guilt and at a hefty financial loss) while others sat tight waiting for the court case and as it is very difficult to prove anything conclusively in such matters, the defendants escaped largely unscathed.  


Some of the best producers of Brunello are Biondi Santi, for elegance and keeping potential; Gianni Brunelli who possesses exceptional vineyards where generic Brunello is often of the quality of the Riserva; Gaja for precision, especially with Sugarille, and the two ultra-modernist brothers of Siro Pacenti, the traditionalists of Cupano, Poggio di Sotto and Cerbaiona without forgetting the iconoclast Soldera.


The producers in Chianti have invested a lot to improve their vineyards and to raise quality. They also had to redress their quality image which had suffered badly during the 1960s with the flooding on the world markets of the old Chianti straw wrapped bottle, the bad design of which was only equalled by its contents. I much prefer the traditional producers of Chianti who use 100% Sangiovese. The top cuvées at Castello di Ama, with elevated vineyards, produce wines of great delicacy, but with great substance. The Chiantis from Fontodi are also superb, as are those of Giuseppe Mazzocolin, in particular the Fontaloro, a blend from Chianti Classico and Chianti Colli Senesi (the Chianti Classico provides the structure and the Chianti Senesi the elegance).


The Appellation Vino Nobile di Montepulciano perhaps does not yet reach the heights of the other two, but some very fine wines are made at Avignonesi and Poliziano, likewise for Morellino di Scansano.


biondi santi.jpg






I run the risk of being heavily criticized by naming a largely unknown grape variety, but I am convinced that some fine wines are made with this variety which is disappearing fast in France, as it has not been retained by any of the French appellations. There were still 12,000 hectares in 1994, but far less now. It is typically a grape variety that is used in blends as it produces a lot of colour, hence its name in French ‘cépage teinturier’, literally translated as ‘grape variety to taint’ as the pulp and the skin are pigmented. It is in the Alentejo, in southern Portugal, that it gives its best results. The best examples are found in the domains of Herdade do Muchāo and Adega da Cartuxa. They can be assembled with trincadeira, aragonez (tempranillo), alfrocheiro and castelão, but the addition of other grape varieties does not exceed 20% in the top cuvées. The best are Muchāo and Caturza reserve from eponymous domains.




Herdade do Muchāo



This grape variety almost disappeared and in the 1970s there were only 15 hectares left, the wine being consumed sweet and as a festive wine. However, there seems to be a long tradition of grape growing and written traces of this variety have been found as far back as the 16th century and even in the first century in some of Plint’s writings in the first century. We owe a great deal to the domain of Arnaldo Caprai and Gianni Fabrizio, a journalist from the Gambero Rosso, to have saved this variety from extinction in the 1970s. It a red wine made from 100% Sagrantino de Montefalco grapes exclusively produced in the region of Perugia in Umbria, it possesses one of the greatest contents of polyphenols in the world. There were 120 hectares of this variety in 2000, but now the vineyard stretches over 660 hectares. The most interesting wine made with this variety is the Montefalco Sagrantino "25 Anni" elaborated by the domain Arnaldo Caprai.





This is a variety that is found exclusively in the Trentino region of the South Tyrol (Alto Adige) in the north of Italy some 20 kms from Lake Garda in the Campo Rotaliano on the banks   of the Noce and the Adige on granitic and salty soil which are perfectly suited for the variety. There are approximately 500 hectares of this variety planted in the region, but it is Elisabetta Foradori from the eponymous domain who put the variety on the map of the world greatest wines.

Genetic analyses done in San Michele all'Adige in mid 2000 have shown that it is related to Syrah. In 1971 the Teroldego Rotaliano obtained its own DOC.






This is the king of grape varieties in Spain and it is planted in its best wine regions, Rioja and Ribera Del Duero. In Rioja, it is often blended with Grenache (10-15%), 10% Mazuelo (Carignan) and 5% Graciano. Traditionally, the large bodegas in Rioja bought grapes from farmers and concentrated mostly on the maturation of the wine in American oak casks and the quality of the wine depended largely on the length of maturation. This traditional style still exists in various domains: Rioja Alta, CVNE, López de Heredia, Muga, Marqués de Murrieta and Marqués de Riscal. But in the 1980s, under the influential American critics, the colour of the wine became a more important factor in dictating its quality. This, combined with a drop in quality and unjustified price increase of the traditional producers led to the emergence of a new bunch of Rioja producers more in tune with the critics and/or the consumers. The wines are more extracted, matured in new French oak and the best come from single designated vineyards. The best domains making this style of wine are Artadi, Finca Allende, Finca Valpiedra, Roda, Ramirez de Ganuza, the later sometimes flirting with excess of wood.

While Rioja was carrying out its peaceful revolution, the Ribera del Duero was emerging as the dominant wine region of Spain and probably sits on the top of the podium as the best wine region of Spain to-day. It was, of course, Vega Sicilia which led the way in 1864, but the resurgence of the region owes a lot to Alejandro Fernández from Pesquera who introduced this region, which only obtained its DO in 1982, to the world of keen amateurs. Alejandro Fernández is passionate about tempranillo (also called Tinto Fino or Pays) and quickly eliminated the Cabernet Sauvignon, the Grenache and the Malbec that were authorized grape varieties in the region. The arrival of the Dane, Peter Sisseck at Dominio de Pingus making its cuvees from 100% Tempranillo which established the preeminence of Tempranillo over any other grape varieties, in particular Cabernet Sauvignon, leading Robert Parker to make the following amazing statement: ‘If you want Bordeaux at half the price then buy Vega Sicilia’. The success of Ribera Del Duero brought a string of investors more interested in the return on investment than in wine and domains started to flourish all over the valley and the number of wineries which was about 20 in the 1980s, shot up to more than 200 in 2010. Abadía Retuerta, Hacienda del Monasterio, Mauro, Teófilo Reyes and Alonso del Yerro are also domains that produce very fine wines.





It is the vision of one man, Alvaro Palacios, who brought the rebirth of this wine region in the 1990s. Credit should also be given to Ricardo Perez, Alvaro’s nephew who is the guardian of the temple when Alvaro is away. Of course, Alvaro was already well known, as he was one of the artisans who spurred the revival of the Priorat. The best vineyards of Bierzo are around the village of Corullón which had been largely abandoned as they were on dramatic slopes, low yielding and deemed to be uneconomical in this rural part of Spain. There are about 9000 of hectares of Mencia vines planted in the north of Castilla y Leon at the border of Galicia and Asturias. The variety was, for a while, considered to be Cabernet Franc, but this is unlikely to be the case. The region is under Atlantic influence and gives wines that are more refined and elegant than the other wine regions of the province, which are influenced by the Mediterranean climate. The ideal wine to discover this grape variety is Palacios Petalos de Bierzo (15-20 euros) because when you reach the crus, prices take off vertically and can reach several hundred Euros for the Corullón, Moncerbal, Las Lamas and the sublime Faraona.




This variety is still largely unknown among consumers outside South Africa. It was only created in 1925 from a crossing of Cinsault and Pinot Noir at the University of Stellenbosch, but only marketed in 1953. In 1960, the Bellevue domain won the trophy of the best wine at the most prestigious wine competition at that time, the ‘General Smuts’ competition. This variety has as many fans as it has critics, as it is a relatively difficult grape to vinify. Some of the best Cape growers, such as André Van Rensburgh at the domain of Vergelegen, pretend that it has no place in South African viticulture. It is true that it has a tendency to develop isoamyl acetate, which imparts aromas and flavours of acetone similar to the one found in nail varnish. It is also a highly tannic variety which needs careful handling during maceration and this is where most growers fail as it is necessary to wait for at least 20 years for the wine to become more user friendly to be consumed, a length of time that most consumers are not willing to wait for a cheaper version of the variety. This is why it is often vinified partially or totally with the carbonic maceration technique. Tasting old Pinotage from the 1950s and 1960s is quite an experience and the best are just reaching their peak with qualities that can match those of any of the best wines in the world. Sadly, today, the Pinotage is too often assembled with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to tone it down and is sold under the banner of ‘Cape Blends”, but a few domains make some very good pure pinotage, notably Kanonkop and Rijks Cellar. One cannot help but think that we have not yet sees the best that this variety can give.





(1) Kym Anderson et Nanda R. Aryal : Database of Regional National Global Winegrape Bearing Areas by Variety 2000 and 2010 (University of Adelaide’s Wine Economics Research Centre). 2013www.adelaide.edu.au/wine-econ/databases.

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