The Next Big Thing in Wine

Industry experts at ASEV conference debate whether unusual varieties or blends are the future of the wine industry

by Andrew Adams
asev alternativevarieties
Earl Jones of Abacela Winery, Nick Dokoozlian of E. & J. Gallo Winery and Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard (from left) field questions about alternative winegrape varieties Tuesday at the national meeting of the American Society of Enology and Viticulture.
Portland, Ore.—Is the next hot winegrape variety waiting to be discovered in a remote vineyard in Greece, or could the future lie in moving away from varietal wines all together?

Those were some of the key questions explored during a panel discussion that came at the end of Tuesday’s Alternative Varieties Symposium, the first major event of this year’s national conference of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture (ASEV). The conference continues in downtown Portland through Friday, with seminars about current wine research from across North America and the world as well as an extensive look at the research of the late Ralph Kunkee, an instrumental microbiologist who worked at the University of California, Davis.

Serving on the alternative varieties panel were Nick Dokoozlian of E. & J. Gallo Winery, Earl Jones, the owner of Roseburg, Ore.-based Abacela Winery, and winemaker Randall Grahm, founder of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, Calif.

More than 100 people attended the alternative varieties symposium, which began with presentations from Glenn McGourty, University of California Cooperative Extension advisor for Mendocino and Lake counties, and James Wolpert, UC Davis viticulture extension specialist.

Hundreds of European cultivars
Wolpert and McGourty, who organized the symposium, said that many varieties unfamiliar to the average consumer or perhaps even winemakers could thrive in California and other U.S. wine regions. Different varieties could provide disease resistance and increased tonnage to areas that are not well suited to traditional grape varieties.

Many of California’s winegrowing regions share similar climates as Southern Europe and the Mediterranean. These areas are home to hundreds of cultivars that might find happy homes in Livermore or Paso Robles vineyards.

Wolpert in particular stressed the importance of using alternative varieties as blending grapes. He’s involved in a major UC Kearney Agricultural Center study looking at grapes from warm regions that could thrive in the San Joaquin Valley.

A wine could contain 25% Periquita, a grape from Portugal, but still be labeled Merlot, preventing confusion with consumers unfamiliar with the winegrape variety.

The organizers’ opening remarks were followed by speakers who covered the main varieties of Greece, Portugal and Sicily as well as a grape-breeding presentation by UC Davis researcher Dr. Andrew Walker.

The exotic grapes of Xinomavro, Fernao Pires, Zibibbo and Grillo could have futures in the United States, and there’s already a long list of plant matter being studied at UC Davis’ Foundation Plant Services. Sue Sim, a researcher with FPS, said several of the grapes discussed during the symposium are being studied at Davis.

Some Portuguese grapes could have strong futures based on the marketing potential of their names—Esgana Cao, which means “dog strangler,” is a white winegrape with robust acidity, and the name of red grape Bastardo/Bastardinho translates to “little bastard.”

Walker, who has made great strides in breeding grapes that are resistant to Pierce’s disease, said research has lagged in breeding for improved fruit and wine quality, yield and vine performance. This is because the industry has had such success selling wines made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon that there’s been little to no demand for improved hybrids.

Dokoozlian, head of research at Gallo, said he and his staff have analyzed around 450 cultivars and identified fewer than a dozen they think would be viable for the U.S. wine industry.

He admitted to being skeptical of finding the next great varietal wine and added that modern science is more likely to find success through winegrape breeding.

Marketing push or pull
Dokoozlian said that if his team finds a variety with potential he’ll put it through an extensive 12- to 15-year process of analysis that includes sensory and chemical analysis to ensure the grape can yield wine with the desired aromas and mouthfeel.

He conceded that he wasn’t an expert in marketing, but from “what I overhear in the boardroom,” it can be a matter of “push or pull.”

The popularity of Pinot Gris, for example, prompted consumers to pull for the product regardless of whether it came from Italy or the Central Valley. Dokoozlian said it would be interesting to see how Gallo’s push for domestic Malbec will play out and whether consumers will be drawn to Malbec from areas outside Argentina.

Dokoozlian said that 30 years ago farmers weren’t focusing on grapes for varietal wines, and today he sees the surging demand for blends as a chance to “run full circle” and produce good wines that may not be tied to specific grapes. “Separate yourself from a varietal name, give consumers a really great product, and it will resonate,” he said.

Jones, owner of Abacela Winery in southern Oregon, was the first grower outside California to plant Tempranillo. He said his efforts have been successful because he’s found land in Oregon that afforded a similar climate to that of northern Spain. During the panel discussion he suggested that blends might continue to sell well even at the same price level as premium Napa Cabernet.

Randall Grahm, owner of Bonny Doon Vineyard and a winemaker who’s been experimenting with different wine varietals for decades, read a prepared statement stating that it’s time to dispose of the idea of varietal wines altogether. “My thought it is to hybridize vinifera grapes, making crosses based partially on observation and reason, partially on intuition using Mother Nature to create a certain amount of diversity within certain parameters.”

He said he’s not convinced there’s any variety better than another; it’s more about matching the right vines to the vineyard site.

Dokoozlian said with a laugh that he was scared by how similar his thinking was to Grahm’s. As a further example he pointed to Germany, where 20 years ago red wine was fairly mediocre. Today, however, wineries are producing vibrant reds with body and mouthfeel because the industry was able to successfully improve the quality of the Dornfelder variety.

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