he sheer number of wine grapes in the world is staggering. But while the varieties of Vitis vinifera number well into the thousands, the forces and trends driving the wine market have pushed many grapes to the edge of extinction.
It takes a great deal of commitment and dedication to produce a wine that typifies a style, cultivates a following, and turns a profit. Winemakers are at odds to balance those three goals, often at the expense of their own curiosity and integrity. In the 1970s and ‘80s, many winemakers ripped up native vines they had deemed unimportant (or commercially unviable) in favor of more consumer-friendly international grapes such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and chardonnay.
However, thanks to some innovative and dedicated winemakers, several grapes have been brought back from near extinction and are being used to craft beautiful, promising wines.
When the late Italian winemaker Paolo Rapuzzi, of Ronchi di Cialla, established a winery dedicated to the native grape varieties of Friuli, he was challenged in his pursuit of the schioppettino grape. Schioppettino was essentially considered extinct by the 1970s, and not even registered as a legitimate grape by Italian wine authorities. Yet Rapuzzi scoured the land for it and managed to procure about 70 individual vines that had been kept solely for historical reasons, not winemaking. His remarkably floral, high-acid, and mineral-toned schioppettino is now the winery’s flagship.
Elisabetta Foradori of the Trentino region in northern Italy took over winemaking at her family estate in 1984 at the age of 19 and set her sights on the teroldego grape. Prior to the ‘80s, teroldego had been grown to produce bulk quantities of wine with little character and interest beyond the local area. But Foradori saw an opportunity to change the way teroldego was being grown in the region and moved to a different pruning style, organic farming, and hand-harvesting. These efforts led to a rebirth of the grape creating high-acid wines with ripe plum and strawberry fruit with smatterings of tar and dried herbs. Today Foradori is known for her wines from teroldego.
Godello, a grape considered to be native to the Galicia region in Spain, was yet another almost-victim of the ’70s. Today godello is one of the top three white wine varieties in Spain thanks to a group of committed winemakers and grape growers. Godello is medium-bodied with pear and apple fruit like that of chardonnay, as well as a floral, silky texture comparable to white Rhone blends.
The efforts to bring back forgotten grapes helps promote diversity in both drinking as well as grape growing and farming. It gives us more opportunity to see the wine world in its past, present, and future.