Filling in the wine jigsaw

Friday, 24. November 2017 - 12:45

Six years ago, Arnaud Daphy and Jean Luc Etievent were visiting Turkey. Etievent, who had previously had a career working in public affairs for the French Prime Minister, and Daphy, from IT, were both inspired by what they were seeing in the vineyards — and shocked.

“They had this amazing heritage of old grape varieties,” says Daphy, referring to Turkey’s treasury of between 1,200 and 1,500 named grape varieties, only a couple of dozen of which are used for winemaking. The grapes have flavour profiles not found elsewhere, such as the red Boğazkere  — the name means “throat burner” — from south-east Anatolia.
What the pair saw, however, wasn’t a deep celebration of all this heritage, but Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah vineyards as far as the eye could see: “We started to think there was something wrong.”

At the time, Daphy and Etievent were doing the Master of Science offered by the International Organisation of Wines and Vines (OIV) and were travelling the world to immerse themselves in wine. “Our bank account is still mourning this,” jokes Daphy.

The more they saw, the more concerned they became, noting that a mere 10 grape varieties account for 70% of the world’s wine production. Soon, they were discussing their concerns with José Vouillamoz, an acknowledged expert on grape genetics, along with winegrowers from the Alps and other regions. “We began to realise that there are more than 1,000 or so grapes, and it’s a shame to only use 30 of them.”

They decided to do something about it and in 2013 founded Wine Mosaic. It’s a not-for-profit organisation that aims to build a network of researchers, ampelographers, journalists, viticulturists and other interested parties to record, recover and share information about old varieties. They connect people with research and existing resources, rather than putting money into a project. And once there have been results, Wine Mosaic showcases the wines at their exhibitions and events.

Small beginnings
It started as five friends, says Etievent: “Arnaud and me, plus Louise Hurren, who helped us a lot with communications and PR, Fanny Basteau and Professor Alain Carbonneau,” who was then head of agronomy at the University of Montpellier. Today, he’s Chairman of Viticulture of SupAgro Montpellier and President of GiESCO (International Group of Experts of Viti-vinicultural Systems and Cooperation), giving him unrivalled access to viticultural expertise, 

Wine Mosaic, Etievent continues, is more of a network than a company: “We have links all around the world with producers, academics and journalists. In each country we have different approaches to help winemakers find and work with patrimonial grape varieties.”
Daphy says that not only is Etievent very good at making connections, but that people get enthusiastic about the project when they hear about it. “They understand what’s at stake,” he says. They have facilitated academic research, appeared at conferences, presented at Vinexpo and had an exhibition at Vinisud.

Wine Mosaic arrived at a propitious time, as the past decade has seen an explosion of interest in indigenous, or autochthonous, grape varieties. Daphy and Etievent were also inspired by the book Wine Grapes (2012), by Jancis Robinson MW, Julia Harding MW and José Vouillamoz, which explored all 1,368 grape varieties then in commercial production. The book was written, says Robinson because: “We sensed there was growing dissatisfaction with international varieties.” She adds that there is now “far more activity than ever in researching and celebrating indigenous varieties all over the world”.

Some of the interest in indigenous varieties is a backlash against globalisation, part of a wider attempt to return to traditional styles of food and wine. There is also a commercial imperative — as markets become more competitive and the distribution pipeline gets narrower, producers need something different to offer to the market. 

“We want to show that tradition is the key to innovation,” says Daphy. “There’s a part of the market that wants a sense of place, a non-standardised product.”

Reviving an old grape
In 2014, Etievent was in Lebanon and he began asking winemakers about ancient varieties. “When we started, the people we met in Lebanon told us they didn’t have any indigenous grapes,” recalls Daphy. “We thought that was weird, because Lebanon is one of the cradles of the wine.”

Etievent says they worked with Lebanese University to get people out into the fields looking for rare grapes. The result was the discovery of almost 40 forgotten grape varieties. “Now, Lebanese winemakers will have a choice — maybe in five or 10 years — to work with many grapes that, three years ago, they didn’t even know existed,” he says. “There are more than 20 estates that want to plant some local grapes — a whole country moving from nothing.”

Notably, the Vassal-Montpellier Grapevine Biological Resources Centre (Grapevine-BRC) offers researchers a vast ampelographic database, making it the international reference for grape vine identification. At present, it has a collection of more than 7,800 specimens from 54 countries. Etievent says they were able to find 20 of the Lebanese grapes in the database. Today, say the pair, it’s clear that the grape Obaideh — long used for the spirit arak — may turn out to be the country’s flagship. 

Wine Mosaic isn’t the only group that’s tracking down old grapes — a number of Italian producers and universities, in particular, have spent considerable time and resources cultivating old varieties. One notable success has been the emergence of Nero d’Avola from Sicily; once grown to be exported as bulk wine and used to pad out other Italian reds, it’s become a prestige grape, thanks to the work of wineries such as Planeta.

But rediscovering old varietals isn’t easy. Many old grapes turn up in soils that aren’t really suited to them, or where the tradition of vinifying them has been lost, and it takes time and experimentation to work out the best way to deal with them. Sometimes what appears to be a new variety is simply a different name for a known grape. Worse, it seems that some old grapes dropped out of history because they weren’t very interesting, though Daphy points out that they can often be improved by planting them somewhere else. “Carignan is an amazing example,” he says. “If you go and ask someone with high-yield vineyards in Languedoc about it, they’ll say it’s not very interesting. But it makes top notch Priorat.” Another option is to learn how to blend the old grapes. “Maybe a tannic one is no good by itself but if you blend it, it’s amazing. A spice.”

For all the difficulties, the Wine Mosaic team see recovering old varieties as critical to the future of wine, not least because they may offer protections against the ravages of climate change, or because they may be lower in alcohol.

“Imagine I’m a new winemaker in Languedoc Roussillon and with climate change, I need to be careful about water, disease and alcohol. What can I do?” says Etievent. He says the choices are three-fold. First is to work with local grape varieties, like Grenache and Carignan. The second is to plant some Assyrtiko from Greece, as it’s allowed under current rules. The third is to work with older grape varieties that offer a rich store of tradition and storytelling to take to market. So having old material available offers more choices. 

Reviving tradition
In the process of looking at grapes, the team discovered that true diversity in wine has another element to it: winemaking. “We realised that vinodiversity is not only the grape varieties, but also the winemaking process,” says Daphy. He lists four “new” trends that are appearing in the wine industry and says that each of them actually has deep historic roots: natural wine, amphora wine, orange wine and aromatised (flavour infused) wines. “For example, with aromatised wines we have recently had rose and grapefruit in wine. We had a look and realised that aromatised wine is a very old tradition. The Romans, the mediaeval people had it.”

Etievent says that if you visit Porto at harvest, you can still see winery workers crushing the harvest with their feet. “When you go to Sicily and ask them around Etna, they will tell you the traditional way was to put the grapes on the volcanic soil and with your feet crush the grapes,” he says. “But in Italy, it’s not allowed to do this. Why in Portugal, but not in Italy? The idea is to understand when the tradition disappeared, and why.” He says that while many winemakers in eastern Europe countries remain connected to their traditions, much winemaking knowledge has died out from the Mediterranean. “A young winemaker from the Southern Rhône came to us and asked how she could work with patrimonial grapes,” he says, adding she was expecting them to give her a recipe. “I told her to go and ask the old people about the way they worked 50 years ago, or to go to the library at Montpellier.”

Of course the big question is, will the market be interested?

A matter of price
Etievent says that when they began, they surveyed 2,000 wine retailers, merchants and restaurants in Bordeaux, to see if they would be interested in carrying unusual grape varieties. Of the 25% who answered, most of them indicated they were open to the idea: “Because it’s a good way for them to show the terroir and to show something different, and have a story to link the product to the consumers.”

The difficult question, he adds, is how to price the wines and introduce them to consumers who aren’t familiar with them. “When you don’t know the wine grapes, is it possible to have a super-premium wine? Or should the winemaker produce a classic, easy-drinking wine? Is your market New York, or the wine geeks?” Etievent says it’s a confusing area, especially when two winemakers from the same region produce bottles at wildly differing prices.

And more people are coming on board, as the Wine Mosaic team get out and about and spread the message. “We have a very strong partnership with Vinisud [in Montpellier],” says Daphy. “They give us a huge room every year — 200 square metres. There we can showcase many things. We’ve got this masterclass place and taste conferences, where winemakers can come and showcase an indigenous grape for 20 minutes.”

There will, no doubt, be other successes in the future, as researchers and viticulturists become aware of the treasures waiting to be discovered in fields and farms across the world. The work will be slow, however. “Wine Mosaic is not our core business,” says Daphy, whose day job is marketing consultant. “It’s for evenings and weekends.”

Fortunately, they’re not alone in their quest.
Felicity Carter