Attentive readers will recall my presentation of A Proper Claret, one of the many wines produced at the Bonny Doon Vineyard. I gave a brief introduction on Randall Grahm, founder of and winemaker at the Vineyard and I recently stumbled on his latest venture, crowdfunding the creation of 10,000 new grape varieties at his Popelouchum Vineyard.
It’s easy to think of Grahm as a quirky or slightly eccentric winemaker, but it would be unwise to underestimate his ideas and ambitions. After successfully building and selling brands such as Cardinal Zin and Pacific Rim, he took on a new challenge with the purchase of a 100ha-property called Popelouchum in San Juan Bautista. The goal was to experiment further with the creation of true terroir wines, accurately reflecting their origin as coming from that land and nowhere else. The initial setup was to experiment with existing varieties, but gradually the idea ripened to try something completely different.
First things first, where do today’s grape varieties come from? Pierre Galet’s monumental encyclopedia lists 10,000 varieties, Jancis Robinson goes more into detail on roughly a 1,000 of those, and that is only taking into account varieties suitable for the production of wine. 99% of them are members of the same (European) family, Vitis Vinifera. There are other Vitis species to be found in Asia or the Americas, but these are not considered to be capable of producing quality wines, giving odd flavors and aromas.
Nonetheless, American vines play an essential role in the world of modern wine as their rootstocks are, contrary to those of the Vitis Vinifera, resistant to Phylloxera. This famous vine pest nearly destroyed all European vineyards in the nineteenth century until it was discovered that grafting the vine on an American rootstock was and still is the most effective way to fight off the little bugs. Alas, this is their only claim to fame, as even in their country of origin, the United States, American vine varieties are only used for their rootstocks whereas the actual grape variety is still derived from Vitis Vinifera. Some winemakers do experiment, Valiant Winery in South Dakota for example produces a wine from a single ancient vine of Vitis Riparia, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
In general, new varieties therefore are the offspring of crosses between Vitis Vinifera varieties. There are a couple of exceptions, hybrids with other Vitis species, but they hardly ever lead to exciting wines with Vidal being the exception as it is widely planted in Canada for the production of ice wine. Within the Vitis Vinifera however, crosses have led to interesting new varieties. Pinotage is probably the most famous example, but Müller-Thurgau in Germany can also be considered as success stories. There are quite a lot of viticultural research facilities working on techniques to improve existing varieties or to develop completely new ones, but the Popelouchum project is different in the sense that it just wants to breed an enormous number of distinct varieties without a narrowly defined goal in mind. There is ample attention towards scientific progress and cooperation with more traditional researchers though.
As a longtime proponent of sustainable vineyard management, Grahm has stated that his team will pay significant attention to increasing drought and disease resistance in the bred varieties, based on ongoing research at UC Davis. Record temperatures in recent weeks have already shown that drought is not only a cause of concern in Mediterranean regions, and given the seemingly irreversibility of global warming, the wine world better be prepared. Disease resistance would decrease the need for pesticides and chemical vineyard treatments, something which is seen as more and more important by both winemakers and consumers, given the rising popularity of the natural wine movement as well.
The real significance of the project may perhaps lie in the creation of an identity for New World wines, to take a different path instead of perpetually attempting to replicate Old World wines. The New World never seemed to have gotten a proper chance at showing that they were capable of producing something inherently its own. Even now, top Oregon Pinot Noir is always posed against Burgundy, just as Australian Shiraz is still blamed for never achieving the finesse of the Rhône. It does not help that the marketing machine is geared towards juxtaposing wines, which does not do justice to the efforts of winemakers all around the world.
In a varietal landscape already dominated by the likes of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah, it is refreshing to see someone paying attention to varieties that have shown untapped potential in other regions. When I asked Grahm what kind of varieties he would like to experiment with, he mentioned among others Ribolla Gialla and Picolit (Friuli), Fer Servadou (Sud-Ouest), Rossese (Liguria) or Grenache Gris (Rousillon). It is a winegeek’s hotlist of new discoveries, and I could think of a couple that I would add myself. They may not ring a bell to everyone, but that is exactly why it is so exiting to find out what their worth really is.
All in all, this is a terrific, ridiculously ambitious project. An enthusiastic winemaker who has proven that he is not all talk but actually capable of creating what he envisions, crowdfunding which will ensure plenty of visibility as well as accountability and an overall force of change that can sweep throughout the wine world are reasons enough to make an active contribution to the project. I have already donated myself, and those wishing to chip in can do so by clicking here, or on the picture below!
photo credits – Sara Remington, Laura Ness