A story revived: Indigenous grape varieties

October 2011

Every traditional wine-growing region in the EU that values its reputation has its indigenous grape varieties – plants to which we ascribe indigenousness. And when a variety is indigenous, the wine made from it is indigenous too. These grape varieties and wines have qualities we would like to have ourselves: they are original, unrepeatable, exceptional, and sometimes even unique.

Old "klarnica" from Vipava. Photo: personal archive

In this connection, two terms are widely used in both French and English: autochtone/autochthon and indigène/indigenous. Both terms are well-know in expert and amateur circles and, in the wine-growing and wine industry, are most often used when referring to varieties of the noble European vine Vitis sativa or to fermentation yeast that is not selected, meaning that it is not selected especially for that purpose but appears in vineyards and wine cellars around two weeks before the grapes are ripe, a process that has been occurring for thousands of years. The mystery of this truly indigenous yeast remains unsolved to this day. And although we have believed for years that determining origin with the help of grape varieties is an easy task, modern DNA analyses tell us that the matter is more complex than one might think. Indeed recent research in the area has overturned nearly everything we believed until recently. It is true that varieties have parents, although the flower of the majority of the European vine varieties is hermaphroditic, with both female and male reproductive structures, which results in self-fertilisation. This knowledge, what we know and what we don't know, has upgraded over thousands of years. Naturally, all these grape varieties have come from somewhere, although the term ‘ampelography’ – the descriptive study of grape varieties – was first used only in 1661.

International understanding of selection of varieties

Pokalca. Photo: personal archive

The term ‘indigenous varieties’ usually refers to those varieties that have arisen only in a particular area and have existed there from time immemorial; their genome originates from the local environment, where grapes and wine are produced and vines are cultivated. Most often, these varieties cannot be found on the international market. Who on Earth has ever heard of zelèn (Slovenia), bonardo (Italy), mondeus (France) or feteasco (Romania), for example? Well actually, the aforementioned grape varieties are not as obscure as it might appear at first sight: connoisseurs have indeed heard about them. But there are also varieties that are unknown even to connoisseurs: even the ancient Romans knew that there are more wine varieties than grains of sand in the world.

But if you look through the wine section in the supermarket, you will be surprised to note that finding more than say two dozen different varieties is no easy task. ‘International’ varieties dominate the shelves, with Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot the most frequent. Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio are next in popularity, while a bottle of Grüner Veltliner, the most widely grown variety in Austria, will not be found in any of the major supermarkets.

Full text Sinfo, October 2011   (pages 40–43)

How it used to be

It’s interesting to note that, in the past, varieties in themselves were not as important as they are today, at least until the appearance of phylloxera (in Slovenia in 1880), which almost destroyed the entire European wine-growing industry. Wine was named after the regions in which it was grown, a tradition surviving since ancient Greece. In his famous book Slava vojvodine Kranjske (The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola), which was published in 1689, the polyhistor Janez Vajkard Valvasor (a member of the London Royal Society) referred to several wine grape varieties grown in Slovenian lands and a special wine from Vipava, “Kindermacher, because it really warms you up”. Later, Matija Vrtovec was one of the first to write about many grape varieties which would also be recognised in the present day, describing them in his famous wine book Vinoreja, published in 1844.  

There are around 6000 recorded grape varieties in the world, but at least as many remain unrecorded. That is why a vine to which we could ascribe indigenousness is likely to be found in every traditional wine-growing region. This is especially true for regions where old varieties were planted in good time in collection plantations, which are a kind of gene bank. A plantation of this kind is to be found in Slovenia in Kromberk near Nova Gorica; it is managed by the Biotechnical Faculty of the University of Ljubljana. How else could we make original, almost indigenous wine if not from an indigenous vine which is completely adapted to the local environment?

The Slovenian case

Kozjansko. Photo: Jakše - Jeršič

The Slovenian list of varieties includes over 50 permitted and recommended varieties, the majority of which are well known and ‘international’, such as modri pinot (Pinot Noir) or renski rizling (Riesling). Laški rizling (Welschriesling) is the most widespread grape in Slovenia, followed by refošk (Refosco), Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. The sixth most common vine is žametovka (Blauer Kölner), an example of which is the oldest vine in the world, which grows in Lent in Maribor and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records.
In this regard, Dr Stanko Vršič mentions the measurement made in 1972 by dendrologist Prof. Rihard Erker, who counted 375 years of growth and posited that the vine could be over 400 years old.  Using genetic technology, Dr Vršič and his colleagues have established that žametovka substantially differs from other grape varieties and that it is similar only to one less-known variety, Chasselas Red. Zealous nurserymen from Vrhpolje near Vipava every year prepare an exhibition of grapes, which is well visited by people of all ages. The exhibition also showcases grape varieties that are less known among local people and have unusual names, such as poljšakica, pokalca, pergulin, planinka, maločrn and cipro.

Quite a few domesticated or even indigenous varieties have gained visibility in the domestic market (zelen, pinela, klarnica, vitovska and ranfol), while rebula (Ribolla Gialla) and šipon (Furmint), which were embraced by local wine-growers for historical reasons, have successfully entered the international market.

In the area of present-day Slovenia, a vine was cultivated by the Celts even before the Romans arrived. Hence Slovenia as a wine-growing region has considerable diversity and is pleased to be able to make a valuable contribution to the world’s treasure trove of indigenous, historical vine varieties.

Text by Dušan Brejc, Sinfo, October 2011