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Why You Might Want to Try Wine From Less Popular Grapes

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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 hot spots, like France, Italy, California, and Australia. 

One might think that's 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.

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 8,000 years," he said, citing an artifact found in the Republic of Georgia that dates back to that time. A small wine making facility was discovered in a cave in Armenia that dates to 6,000 years ago. 

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, but so do other factors: where it’s grown, how the winemaker treats it, and what yeast is used. 

“Yeast is like a bass player in a rock band," Begos said. "It's absolutely vital but not at the front of the stage."

There are about 1,400 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 could be a problem as grapes become more and more inbred and more susceptible to disease.

“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,” Begos said. “We’re loving them to death."

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,” Begos said.  "[The old grapes] often make very good wines -- wines that even critics recognize as very good."

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.