Why Can’t We Create New Grape Varieties?

It’s an extraordinary thing, but Nature does a much better job of creating new grape varieties than Man. It’s hard to think of any new variety that was bred to purpose and has made interesting wine. Perhaps the best known man-made variety is Müller-Thurgau, produced in Germany in 1882 by a cross between Riesling and the table grape Madeleine Royale. The most widely planted grape in Germany, it has the important attributes of growing more easily and offering greater resistance to frost than Riesling. But it’s basically good for producing bulk Liebfraumilch rather than quality wine. In fact, breeding programs have generally had their greatest successes in producing new varieties that do well in marginal climates, often because they have greater resistance to cold weather. While useful in allowing the range of viticulture to be extended where natural varieties might not succeed, almost by definition this does not produce great wine.

There’s a strange view when creating varieties that crossing two extremes will lead to a new variety balanced between the parents. Genetics doesn’t necessarily work like that. Look at Pinotage, a strange cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault created in 1925 in South Africa. The variety was appealing because it ripened early and achieved high sugar levels. Pinotage can be made in fresh and fruity styles for early drinking, or given exposure to oak to become a more serious wine, but perhaps the most significant fact is that nowhere do you find any claim for its typicity. There’s no core style for Pinotage akin to that for its Pinot Noir parent, and my own view on the rare occasions when I encounter a decent Pinotage is regret that the producer didn’t simply plant a better variety in those vineyards.

Another variety constructed along the same principles is Marselan, a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache undertaken in the south of France in 1961. The idea was to provide a new variety that would give better results than the over-producers such as Aramon that were prominent in the area at the time. But Marselan has never really caught on – there are only a couple of hundred or so hectares grown – perhaps because like Pinotage it just doesn’t have any core character.

My view that Nature does a better job was reinforced when I encountered a new variety at Querciabella in Chianti. Querciabella’s former agronomist acquired a cutting of a old Cabernet Sauvignon vine in the Chianti zone and propagated it at Querciabella. But the grapes ripened earlier than other Cabernet Sauvignon plantings and didn’t taste the same. DNA testing showed that the vines are a new variety, resulting from a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Trebbiano Toscana. They call it Trebbiano Nero at Querciabella.

The wine reinforces the impression of Cabernet as a distinctive variety. Barrel samples of Trebbiano Nero show a Cabernet-ish character, although to my palate it is more like Cabernet Franc than Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s softer than Cabernet Sauvignon, a little earthy, and has a distinct note of tobacco on the finish. Tannins are more finely textured than Cabernet Sauvignon, but show as drier on the finish; perhaps actually it’s not so much that the tannins are drier, but that the fruits are less obvious. There seems to be a touch less acidity and freshness than Cabernet Franc. It supports the view that the typicity of Cabernet can range from herbaceous to herbal to earthy to tobacco, all depending on the variety, cultivar, and conditions. It will be interesting to see what Querciabella decide to do with their new variety.

All different grape varieties developed originally by spontaneous crosses between existing varieties. This is a rare process, because the grapevine is self-fertilizing, so it’s not common for cross-fertilization to occur. And of course the frequency has been much reduced since the practice of growing each variety in its own separate plot rather than co-mingling them in the vineyard. Even so, there might be any number of such spontaneous crosses that pass unnoticed because the results are unremarkable; it’s only when one gives interesting results that it gets picked out and propagated. When new crosses are generated deliberately, a somewhat similar process occurs, in that lots of progeny are generated, and the viticulturalist tries to select one that has useful properties. So why are the results of spontaneous crosses in the wild so much more interesting?


19 thoughts on “Why Can’t We Create New Grape Varieties?

  1. It’s probably a matter of numbers. Consider how many pairwise crosses are available in a hectare planted on a 1 meter grid – and how long it would take an enologist to do the same!

    • But consider how few spontaneous crosses between different varieties actually occur when each variety is planted in a separate block. And whereas before phylloxera made grafting necessary, a new variety could take root, now it’s going to be rare that it has a chance to survive. So wouldn’t it be be an extraordinary event for a new variety to arise today? It may be true that until the nineteenth century, there was intense natural selection on a substantial number of spontaneous crosses, but that situation has changed so it’s going to be exceedingly rare for any new spontaneous crosses to arise. Given the almost total failure to produce anything interesting by man made crosses, does this mean that we are stuck completely with existing varieties?

    • It will be difficult to find situations where this happens given the emphasis on obtaining absolute ripeness in each plot, which really requires segregation. Marcel Deiss in Alsace is the outstanding exception. And the other complicating issue is the need for grafting – would a new cross be able to rot itself and survive phylloxera?

      • AH but my question is not why Nature isn’t generating new varieties – indeed the answer is in this exchange – it is why all human efforts have produced such uninteresting new varieties. My point really is that we need the evolutionary force of Nature to produce new varieties and that without this, we are going to be stuck with today’s varieties.

  2. You raise a fascinating number of questions in an area in which I have an interest. I realise that I am probably on a hiding-to-nothing by taking on a MW, but in the spirit of discussion and playing devils-advocate, here goes!!

    Your headline is, of course, incorrect. There are many commercially successful grape varieties that have been bred by viticulturists. Go to your local supermarket and check the names of the table grapes, then look them up in a book of grape varieties of 100 years ago. Few or none of the varieties people buy today were available then. The taste today is for seedless grapes and new seedless varieties have been bred to replace the favourites of yesteryear. (An exception is the seedless Sultana aka Thompson’s Seedless).

    And in all the wine vineyards of the world are new varieties, bred by man. They are the ones with their roots in the ground, bred for various strengths including resistance to phylloxera.
    So why, when consumers are happy to eat grapes from newly bred varieties and viticulturists demand to graft their vinifera vines onto rootstocks from newly bred varieties, are there so few new wine grape varieties?

    I think the answer is tradition. That most wine drinkers want to continually drink variations of classic varieties.

    When you drink Pinot Noir you have a long history to look back on. It’s a variety that by trial and error over the centuries specific yeasts have been found, growing and wine making techniques honed to perfection and terroir learned.

    To dismiss out of hand a new variety that viticulturists and winemakers have had 50 or fewer vintages to work with seems to me unfair, for example where you say there is no typicity for Pinotage while there is for Pinot Noir. What this implies to me is that you have drunk enough Pinot Noir to have decided on a core style, but you don’t have the same familiarity with Pinotage. I tasted a Slovenian Pinot Noir last week that I didn’t think was at all the same as a burgundy and neither the same as a Central Otago PN. I don’t think it’s clear cut.

    The reason the classic varieties *are* classic is that they have been chosen over the centuries by man. (and maybe bred by man? – the name Cabernet Sauvignon suggests its parentage was known long before DNA proved it). The successful ones popular for various reasons continued to be grown and others, such as Gouis Blanc have almost vanished.

    So why aren’t there new naturally bred varieties? For that to happen the seed would have to grow – but where? Weeds in vineyards are removed. The success rate of new grape varieties is very poor. But if a decent vine did grow *and* it produced grapes (many are sterile) and it seen by a winemaker who makes wine from it – and the wine was good… and it was propagated and put on the commercial market, then what? It has no track record, no experience of where best to grow it, how best to make its wine etc etc etc.

    There are thousands of traditional wine grape varieties grown around the world so anyone wanting something different has plenty of choice. Is there really any need to breed a new grape variety?

    Well, yes… new man-bred grape varieties are commercially successful is in America in Finger Lakes (New York) with varieties such as Traminette bred for local conditions and Florida with Muscadine hybrids resistant to Pierces.

    As I said this is a fascinating topic. You mention Muller-Thurgau which can make – or is *used* to make – a bland wine in Germany. But grow it at the limits of wine making and it can make an exciting edgy crisp wine as it does here in England and quite different.

    The first commercially available bottling of Marselan was in 2002 so it seems presumptuous to dismiss it, and I don’t think any of us can claim to have tasted that many examples. There might be ‘only a couple of hundred hectares’ grown – that is more than the worldwide plantings of Viognier in the 1970’s. Fashions change, some varieties come in to prominence, while others fade out.

    How about Petite Sirah ( Durif)? Has its own fan club in California, and essential (in my opinion) component of a Zinfandel blend. Bred in 1880’s France by M Durif, and my local pub-restaurant lists a Ruby Cabernet (bred in 1936).

    A related question to my mind is – why are the most prized wine varieties all those that originated in France* and in those regions that had easy access to export markets? Is it just co-incidence and varieties indigenous to, say Russia, Georgia, Turkey etc are not as worthy? I think it is fashion and tradition in western countries, in particular UK and US.

    I could go on – thanks for raising such an interesting topic…

    Peter F May
    PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine

    *simplification – Riesling from Germany of course and some Italian varieties…

    • Well, I was referring specifically to wine grapes; your point is well taken that for table grapes we do in fact have new varieties, most notably making seedless grapes available. Question: what would happen if seedless grape varieties were developed for wine production; would this give greater flexibility for extraction relative to tannin management since one wouldn’t have to worry about extracting bitter seed tannins?

      I stand by my conclusion that no new varieties of real interest have been developed for wine production, although I admit it’s a bit circular, since the focus on developing new varieties is for marginal situations, where the chance of producing great wine is limited. But five hundred years ago, Burgundy was probably marginal for Pinot Noir…

      • How about Zweigelt?
        Most planted red variety in Austria, twice as much as second red and second only to Gruner Veltliner. Bred in 1922 its has >14% of vineyard area and . between 1999 and 2009, its vineyard surface coverage increased by 48.9%.
        Data from http://www.austrianwine.com.

  3. Well, I just came a little late for this but I’ll put it anyway.
    I now you are working on a book about Cabernet sauvignon. Have you found that CS was in fact a natural crossing and not a man bred variety?.
    Anyhow, I think there are no new wine varieties, in part, because of what it would take to have one. Imagine someone trying to convince “the bank” to finance an unguaranteed 15 (at least) year project of getting a number of new wine varieties. The period has to include adaptability to environment fluctuations over the seasons and then the ability of the wine to age positively over time.
    Maybe, a century ago the life pace was even slower than we can think today. I’ve read in your book that wineries had up to five vintages in. Maybe they had the time, they could wait and if more time was needed the next generation would take over. But today, today it would just take too much.

    • But Sergio – there are new varieties being developed all the time. In the past few years in South Africa recently developed varietiesRoobernet (R) and Nouvelle (W) have been commercially planted. In the USA the University of Minnesota are breeding varieties. such as 1999’s Frontenac (R) for cold climates and supporting their programme by charging a royalty on each vine. A Frontenac Blanc is released this year. The Cornell University research station in Geneva (New York) has been breeding new varieties for many years. They’re breeding new varieties in Germany — indeed all over.

    • Sergio specifically asks the question I intimated above..
      “you are working on a book about Cabernet sauvignon. Have you found that CS was in fact a natural crossing and not a man bred variety?”

      I hope you are delving into the origin of CS for your book.. I am interested, if it was a natural cross, how they just happened to stumble upon a name that mentions both parents..

      • DNA fingerprinting shows that Cabernet Sauvignon originated as a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. This would almost certainly have happened as a rare spontenous cross in the field. The DNA fingerprinting data cannot indicate how long ago this happened. The earliest descriptions of Cabernet Sauvignon by that name date from the early eighteenth century. Allowing time for the new variety to become recognized and established, and looking at patterns of wine grape cultivation, my best guess would be that Cabernet Sauvignon originated in the Middle Ages in the Graves region of Bordeaux.

  4. My point was that the name could suggest that the growers knew the parentage….. and they would know that if they’d deliberatly crossed the varieties…

    “This would almost certainly have happened as a rare spontanenous cross in the field” – why not a deliberate cross of two succesful varieties? If natural the cross wasn’t necessarily rare – any grape with seeds in it has been fertilised and we don’t know (or care) by what and if it happened once then it could have happened hundreds or thousands of times. What is rare, IMO, is that the seed from that cross was planted, allowed to grow, recognised as worthy and subsequently propagated.

    • Because so far as I know, there is no evidence for any human intervention in breeding grapevines before the nineteenth century. All of the literature refers to the then existing varieties by a series of overlapping names, making it difficult to distinguish them (especially as the same name was used in different areas, e.g. in the Graves and in the Medoc, for what was probably the same variety). There is one early reference to “Sauvignon Noir” and “Sauvignon Blanc”, which suggests the growers might have recognize some sort of relationship – but even there, it is not certain that the Sauvignon Noir was in fact Cabernet Sauvignon rather than one of the other related varieties. I would think the names of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc reflect the fact that both are characterized by pyrazines, which would certanly have been common given levels of ripeness attained in the period, so you might easily think they were related, but it would be fanciful to suppose that the names recognize more than an observation of possible relationship.

  5. Good Morning, I am a wine journalist, I was going to write an article about Trebbiano and his clone over time, and I found your article about Querciabella “trebbiano nero”, I have been study in Gaiole in Chianti by Istituto Sperimentale and I had a taste of 1996 trebbiano nero wine and I have also made a quality control sheet, I must say I found excellent, it was a clone ot Trebbiano and Malbech/Sirah made after the second war a professor unknow, so I just thank you for your study.

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