Origins of Wine and Why You Might Want to Try Less-Popular Grapes

Jun 11, 2018

Walk into a wine shop today and you’ll likely find hundreds of brands and vintages, but most of them will be made from a handful of grape varieties grown in a handful of wine-making hotspots, like France, Italy, California, and Australia. 

That’s ostensibly because those are the best wine grapes and the best places to grow them, but wine has been grown and made in a wide range of places for thousands of years and there’s an emerging movement to preserve and recover local grape varieties and winemaking traditions that have been lost or even stamped out over the past few centuries. Kevin Begos explores the twisting evolution of grapes and wine in his new book Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavor and the Search for the Origins of Wine.

"People have been tweaking grapes for eight-thousand years," he said. There was an artifact found in the Republic of Georgia that had a grape motif on it eight-thousand years ago. And a small wine making facility was discovered in a cave in Armenia six-thousand years ago. 

Back then, and in more recent history, wild grapes had hardly any fruit on them, and were mostly pits, so people started domesticating them and picking out the better tasting berries.

The type of berry matters, but when it comes to making wine, so do other factors: where it’s grown, how the winemaker treats it, and yeast contribution. “Yeast is like a bass player in a rock band. It's absolutely vital but not at the front of the stage,” said Begos.

There are about fourteen-hundred types of wine grapes, but most of them aren’t widely used. In fact, it’s basically just a handful of grapes that are the big producers. That can be a problem, says Begos, “Some leading grape scientists say that by just focusing on five or six French grape varieties we’ve actually stopped those from evolving because they’re propagated by cutting and not seeds.” The grapes are more and more inbred in this case. “We’re loving them to death,” he said.

There is a movement to change that however. People are starting to seek out and preserve local varieties that their grandparents may have grown. ““I think it’s the equivalent of the slow food movement finally coming to the wine world,” said Begos. And fortunetly, he said, some of them taste quite good, even by critics' standards.