Europeans think “region first” when ordering wine. Buyers have to know, for instance, the varieties of grapes used in wines listed as Sancerre, Bordeaux, and Rioja. In the U.S., however, variety reigns, and thus our wine labels prominently display Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Riesling, which all are types of grapes, not places. The European style embraces blending. Depending on the growing conditions from year to year, the unique characteristics of individual varieties are balanced against other complementary grapes in hopes of achieving a symphony of flavors. In their long history of winemaking, this all-for-one concept discouraged growers from experimenting with single varietal wines — and ended up helping to preserve biodiversity.
While many Americans believe that only a dozen varieties of grapes exist, Italy, for example, has more than 1000 — and the Italian authorities haven’t completed their genetic testing. The brawny and remote Ardeche region of France is also home to numerous unheralded grape varieties, including one named chatus, first mentioned by Olivier de Serres in his Théâtre d’Agriculture in 1600. Explosively fragrant, tannic, and yet uncommonly nuanced, most of chatus’ continued obscurity is due to the highly skilled pruning technique needed to get the vine to bear fruit and the absurdly brief two-day harvesting window when the grapes must be picked. Over the centuries, exasperated growers have chosen to replant their chatus vineyards with more productive, recognizable (read: marketable) varieties.
The problem now is that small winemakers have very little means to promote the unique qualities of grapes like chatus. Furthermore, larger growers and cooperatives are replacing lesser known indigenous vines with recognizable varieties like Cabernet, Merlot, and Chardonnay, simply because that’s what Americans know to buy.
Right now, some of the world’s top wine consultants are poking their noses into out-of-the-way vineyards on the Iberian Peninsula, where a stunning array of indigenous grapes prosper on some of Europe’s most prime and varied vineyards. These vines have been growing continuously for hundreds — if not thousands — of years, but the temptation is to replant these ancient vineyards with commonplace varieties because the winemakers would stand to make substantially more money.
What you can do to help is to learn the names of some of the wonderful old wine regions and grape varieties. Portugal offers a palette of both lush and crisply acidic whites, with names like Gouveio, Arinto, Alvarinho, and rich, powerful reds from varietals, including Touriga Nacional, Baga, and Tinta Roriz. Portugal’s grape-growing terrain ranges from clay and chalk in the Bairrada region to windblown Estremadura, a mountainous interior offering sun-drenched slopes, and the Douro River Valley, just to name a few of the ten major growing regions.