In a new report, it seems that we are collectively drinking a few varieties of the same wine our ancestors drank thousands of years ago - right across the globe. As climate change digs in, our variety choice is likely to create problems with grape production and therefore the future of wine. Like so many of the plants we eat, convenience and marketing have managed to dwindle diversity in grape crops to only 12 main varieties across the world. These 12 varieties supply 80 percent of the global wine market, despite the fact that thousands of varieties have existed since Roman times. Many of those grapes won't be suitable for the warmer climates in which they grow, and crops will fail more often.
There is also the notion of 'terroir'. Terroir is the belief that the flavour of a wine is a balance among the grape variety, coupled with where and how it was grown. Terroir makes wine growers reluctant to change varieties for fear of interfering with wine flavour. Wine labelling laws also restrict the varieties of wine allowed to be bottled. In Europe for instance, a wide variety of different grape varieties are available, but only certain varieties can be labelled as Champagne or Burgundy. Laws are changing as regulators allow other varieties with a climate or environmental advantage to join together with specific varieties, but progress is slow.
Australian grapes are consistent - 12 varieties account for 80 percent of grapes - and they are the same varieties grown across the world. Proving that we are what we are marketed, it seems that like most of the world, the main reason for restricted varieties is that we relate to certain types of wine and are reluctant to try others - even if the variety of choice shouldn't be grown in a particular area and tastes awful. (Sounds suspiciously like my relationship with Pinot Noir.)
Co-author of the report, Elizabeth Wolkovich, told Harvard Gazette that wine producers now face a choice. To proactively experiment with new varieties, or risk suffering from climate change.“WITH CONTINUED CLIMATE CHANGE, CERTAIN VARIETIES IN CERTAIN REGIONS WILL START TO FAIL. THAT’S MY EXPECTATION. SO, HOW DO YOU START THINKING OF VARIETAL DIVERSITY? MAYBE THE GRAPES GROWN WIDELY TODAY WERE THE ONES THAT ARE EASIEST TO GROW AND TASTED THE BEST IN HISTORICAL CLIMATES, BUT I THINK WE’RE MISSING A LOT OF GREAT GRAPES BETTER SUITED FOR THE FUTURE.”
This picture* from the report by Nature Plants of the relationships among wine shows both our varietal ancestry and just how close we are to the same wine drunk by our ancestors. Historically, there are literally thousands of varieties that can be readily resurrected. It's more a matter of the grower's motivation in the face of a market who has been trained to like a particular grape variety. It's certainly going to be interesting to see what happens as things heat up, dry out and weather becomes more extreme.