Grape varieties are landmarks on the map of wine. The wine drinker finds it useful to know the variety used because this is a major clue to the taste and character of the wine in the bottle. A wine made from Chardonnay, for example, will have certain taste characteristics, wherever in the world it is made. The grape variety is only one ingredient in the taste — winemaking technique and the land it grows on can be much stronger influences — but a knowledge of the main grape varieties is a most useful tool in wine choice.
The cultivated grape vine is the distant descendant of a wild forest plant whose habit is to climb up and trail through trees. This can still be seen in the Caucasus, and vines are still trained up trees and arbors in Italy, northern Spain and Portugal. The severely pruned bush that is the modern vine bears little resemblance to this wild plant, but the genetic inheritance can be traced even though vitis vinifera has since evolved into several thousand varieties. Specific varieties are chosen by winemakers for their various attributes, both in ease of cultivation and the quality they confer on the wine they produce.
The behaviour of varieties in the vineyard is discussed in the chapter on Winemaking. Here, we consider the wine drinker and the character that the classic varieties give to the wine in the glass.
Despite the very large number of vine varieties, a few have been selected by winemakers as having special characteristics, and these have become increasingly international. These varieties all originate in classic European vineyards, and they are linked in the minds of wine lovers and winemakers across the world with classic French and other wines. European wine legislation, especially that of France, dictates the variety to be grown: all red burgundy from the Cote d'Or, the heart of the region, is made from Pinot Noir, nearly all white burgundy from Chardonnay. In other areas a mix of varieties is permitted: red bordeaux is made from a varying proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and a few minor grapes.
In some European countries, such as Italy and Spain, French varieties are being introduced to complement the local, traditional, vines. Thus Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in Tus-cany, and Chardonnay in Catalonia, to make new styles of wine.
Winemakers in the New World have taken these and other classic varieties and planted them widely. A debate continues as to whether a classic variety can allow winemakers to reproduce the taste of the
European original in other vineyards. The emerging consensus is that varietal character, while a strong influence eventual wine taste, is only onr factor among many. The very location of the vineyard, the climate, soil and other factors unique to that vineyard, will affect the way the vine grows and the flavour of the grapes it bears. And then the whole process of winemaking comes into play.
Most of the world's wine is made from non-classic varieties. These may be grown for traditional reasons, or because they are prolific and easy to cultivate, or because a variety is particularly suited to the local conditions. It is a mistake to think that only classic varieties can make good wine. The worldwide move to the dozen or so classics endangers local vines, which have their own special characteristics and which preserve valuable genetic material.
Throughout the encyclopedia, local varieties are discussed where appropriate.