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Wine Advice that Nobody Asked For: 1,368 Grape Varieties

When you think of popular wines, what grapes come to mind? Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc? How about Saperavi, Roter Veltliner, or Robola? Now how many of these grapes do you think that you’ve tried as a wine? 5? 15? 50? What if I told you that there were more than a thousand grapes you could be trying?

In 2012 Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, and Jose Vouillamoz published a book simply called “Wine Grapes,” that covers 1,368 grapes used to make wine on any commercial level around the world. Though it has a modest title, it is an incredibly valuable book when it comes to learning about the vast array of grapes used to make wine, as well as which grapes are related.

Did you know that Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc are the parent grapes to Cabernet Sauvignon? And did you also know that the parents of Merlot are Cabernet Franc and Magdeleine Noire des Charentes? It would indicate that Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are half-siblings.

What does this little Snapple Fact tell us? Is it a pedantic little tidbit that you pull out of your back pocket to make conversation filler at a happy hour? Yeah, you could do that. It also might offer a little insight as to why the grapes are so often blended together, most famously in Bordeaux.

The other takeaway from this book is that the average wine drinker is probably only trying about one to two dozen wine grapes in the course of their wine drinking life. And that estimation might be generous. If you have that person in your life that only drinks Pinot Grigio in the summer and Shiraz in the winter, then there’s someone who consumes even fewer different grapes.

There was one interaction in my earlier days of wine sales where I was all jazzed about some new obscure grape variety, and attempted to recommend it to someone without figuring out what their level of comfort was. I’m sure I tried to sell some obscure (at the time) Italian variety like Pecorino or Grillo to somebody, and she simply said, “I don’t like to try anything new.” When I pressed how she ever tried anything ever then, she said that she waited for her friends to buy the wine. I wondered what it was like to be her friend.

If you find yourself open to the idea of trying a grape that you’ve never heard of there’s a relatively easy course of action that you can take. Think of a few grapes that you like, let’s say that those grapes are Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay (but without the oak). Then, the next time you’re talking to your neighborhood winemonger, express that you like those grapes, but want to try a variety that you’ve never heard of.

I’d be inclined to recommend anything along the lines of Jacqueres, Albarino, Vermentino, or even Mtsvane. Even though many of the names can get pretty exotic, the overlap of flavor profiles isn’t as divergent as the names themselves. Next time you’re shopping, get a little whacky, try the Traminer, take the Timorasso for a spin, grab some Garganega, slug some Savatiano, chug some Chasselas! Why wait? There are about a thousand different grapes to sample.

-Joe Buchter, Import Wine Buyer

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