What is your favorite grape variety?  The Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay you enjoy has not been around forever.  Documentary evidence may help to date its first appearance.  Chardonnay first got a written mention in 1583, and Cabernet Sauvignon is a relative newcomer from about 1770.  But where did they come from?

Grape vines were growing well before human records begin, and they all belong to genus vitis.  Historically, most of the interest in grape vines was concentrated in Europe and the Middle East, as that is where vine propagation and wine production were so important.  There was just one species of wild grape vines, believed to have originated region close to what is now Georgia (in the Caucuses Mountains, not the US state where you can visit Cavender Creek Winery).   This species is called vitis vinifera.  Today, vinifera is the most important species for wine production in the world.

Over the millennia, whilst vines were grown and wines fermented, producers selected their best vines for their disease resistance, climatic capability, volume produced, wine taste and other characteristics.  This process of creating particular varieties happened in two ways:

  • Crosses : Different vive varieties can cross-pollinated and produce offspring vines with characteristics of both parents.   Vine growers either did this deliberately or noticed strange new grapes in their vineyards.  Either way, the producers carefully selected those varieties that met their needs.

  • Mutants : Many vine varieties exhibit another trait – they self-pollinate and they spontaneously mutate to produce new grape varieties (most of which are not viable).  However, some of these mutations are valuable new varieties. 

Pinot Noir is a classic example, and is believed to be the parent of twenty or more grape varieties including Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio), Gamay and Chardonnay.  Hence we now have thousands of vinifera varieties (though less than 1,500 are commercially significant).

The story doesn’t end there.  Unknown to the early winemakers, in North America there were grape vines too.  And not just one species as in Europe – there were nineteen new species.  Many of them only make poor wine.  But, unlike vinifera they are resistant to the many vine diseases and pests present here.  Early European settlers in North America had little success in growing vinifera, but they started trying to improve native species by cross-breeding with vinifera.  The results were Hybrids – new grape varieties producing acceptable wines and resistant to American diseases.

Robin Hall

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