Around the wine world the plantings of the major grape varietals are steadily growing more dominant. At the turn of the new millennium in 2000, approximately 21 varietals accounted for half of the world’s vine area. Over the following decade by 2010 that number of varietals had dropped to 15 covering the same area. The share of vineyard area of the top 35 global grape varietals was approximately 59% back in 2000, this rose to 66% in 2010.
On the face of these numbers we are looking at a shrinkage of varietal diversity, and an assumption of increasing standardization. Should wine enthusiasts be worried - as you may have heard recently - ‘worry is a wasted emotion’. Looking at this situation from one perspective, what makes wine interesting is not only the diversity of varietals that exist.
As you can look at a grape varietal like a musical instrument: with practice and experience you can learn to play virtually any style of music you as the ‘winemaker’ decides to express, as it’s the score that guides you, and the score is terroir.
A good example is Burgundy - a region dominated almost exclusively by just two varietals. But no one complains or has described the wines or the region boring or lacking diversity. The diversity and interest is in the soils and climate, the vineyard sites and winemaker interpretation. The soils are the dominant factor here in determining the quality of the wines in question. If a vineyard has great soil diversity and a suitable climate, then you just need one or a few suitable varietals to best express this. This could be either commercial of fine wine expressions, sometimes depending on scale.
A typical example we see around the world is having 2 glasses of wine poured for you - and in one is a Rhône Valley Syrah and in the other is a Barossa Valley Shiraz. It can be difficult to recognize these as the same varietal. The same clone and age of vine is capable of such different expressions in different soils and climates, and when subjected to different winemaking techniques. So from this perspective and the ongoing competitive nature and expectation from the buying public. Winemakers are choosing varietals that they can depend upon to perform in their regions and produce a crop and expressive wine each season so as to stay in business - and to pass the winery onto the next generation. There is no danger of running out of interesting wine any time soon, as it is the geography, climate, winemaker and cultural influences which all play their part in making interesting wines - all the pressure is not on the shoulders of a single varietal.
Though from another perspective - the industry needs to keep a broader, longer term awareness of varietal diversity. Loss of diversity is simply that - loss of diversity, no matter what spin you put on it. The wine industry, wine enthusiasts the world over, and future generations will be all the poorer for this loss of grape varietal diversity - even if it has no impact on the quality, interest or commercial value of the wine of present day.
The industry, journalists and retailers should not underplay the importance of variety and diversity. Varietal diversity is of equal importance to the soil and climate, and the hands of the winemaker. We need diversity in varietals so that we can identify those which best suit all the above different geography and climate conditions (which are changing) and then these varietal characters and flavours inside the bunch and individual berries, influence and guide the resulting wine crafted by the winemaker. Also we should not forget why wine is so carefully crafted around the world - to pair with cuisine, and with the diversity of cuisine we need wines with equal diversity to compliment and bring out the best in each dish.
To give a few examples that diversity is growing (contrary to the above global statistics). Only a decade ago, it was virtually impossible to find in New Zealand wine made from indigenous Italian varietals such as Arneis, or the Spanish Albariño, or the Austrian varietal Grüner Veltliner. Today, many of these indigenous varietals are producing world-class wine in new regions such as Gisborne and Marlborough. Much the same thing has happened in Spain, Italy, France and the world over - as we sip, savour and share diverse wines with a world of cuisine - which has never been so accessible and exciting.