There are many reasons why it’s important to protect native varieties. All varieties are born somewhere, but in contrast to the well-travelled “internationals”, regional specialities are highly localised. European wine nations such as Italy, Portugal, Spain and Greece are rich in native varieties, and, driven by interest in what the Australians call “alternative varieties”, they are starting back-packing travels of their own. Intriguingly, researchers have not yet found any links between the more than 500 Georgian varieties and any of the “European” varieties, despite Georgia being the cradle of wine.
So why are native varieties important?
Of course, a key motivation has to be because native varieties allow us to drink wines which are authentically of their place. While the top internationals are dominating global vineyard trends, the risks of conformity are being raised. It’s not wildly exciting to drink wines which are made of the same six grapes, grown in 60 different countries. Native grapes offer the opportunity to try something completely different.
But arguably the most important reason to protect and celebrate native grapes is because of the diversity they represent.
The 19th century European phylloxera outbreak was devastating to the continent’s grape growing regions – but it also afforded them an opportunity to assess which were their most profitable varieties and to only replant these grapes post-outbreak. This marked the beginning of a creeping homogeneity of grape varieties in not just Europe, but the world. But Georgia largely escape this phenomena. Today, Georgia boasts more than 500 varieties of indigenous grapes – nearly one-sixth of the world’s grape varieties – including endangered vines found nowhere else on Earth.
Until recently, commercial production in Georgia concentrated on two varieties championed and expanded under Soviet times, Rkatsiteli and Saperavi. In recent decades, the determination to resurrect the country’s diverse natural heritage is leading producers to plant more of the ‘old’ native varieties, many of which had almost been forgotten.
The Georgian government also recognises the importance of this diversity. The Scientific-Research Centre of Agriculture studies planting material for perennial crops like grapevines and aims to revive the grape varieties which would otherwise be at risk of disappearing. In summer 2014, the National Wine Agency started by giving over 7000 plants of ‘obscure’ varieties to growers around the region, and this had steadily increased over subsequent years.
The diversity of native grapes in Georgia will also become increasingly important as climate change threatens traditional grape growing areas. Native grapes offer winemakers the opportunity to exchange grapes which cannot cope with the vagrancies of a changing climate, with grapes which are naturally adapted to these more extreme circumstances.
All in all, there are many reasons why it’s important to celebrate the diversity of Georgia’s native grapes. So keep on drinking them!