Vines on the Brink – How Consumerism Is Threatening the Wine World


Throughout the various wine growing regions, certain varieties get much more attention from consumers than others.  As a result, wine growers seek to plant those varieties that will make them the most profit for their efforts and local vineyards are often uprooted in favor of planting these much more lucrative vines. 

Yet this over emphasis on planting and cultivating varieties that consumers are currently favoring has resulted in the abandonment of many local, indigenous varieties.  Receiving less and less acreage every year, with fewer and fewer wineries seeking to produce bottlings, many of these more obscure wine varieties are now facing extinction as a result.

Winemakers Fight Back

As many indigenous varieties face extinction due to wineries catering to current consumer habits, many local winemakers are fighting back.  Outside of the Savoie region in France’s Isere, winemaker Nicolas Gonin has developed a reputation for being an “orphanage for homeless grapes.”   Alongside other ampelographers (or those who study ancient grapes), Gonin tracks down and replants grapes that many, even in the wine industry, have never heard of. 

As Gonin explains, there are currently over 500 varieties planted in France, but under the current AOC system, only 150 of them are allowed in commercial wine production.  As such, vineyard owners continue to uproot these lesser known varieties in favor of planting those that will get them the most bang for their buck.

Those vineyards still planted to these obscure varieties often see them blended away in field blends.  Gonin, however, produces single varietal bottlings of these varieties in the hopes of illuminating their true flavor profile and unique characteristics.  In addition, Gonin utilizes organic viticultural methods alongside minimal intervention in the winemaking process to ensure that the wines are the best expression of both the variety and the land.

As such, these single varietal bottles represent a revolution in the wine world as even the experts in the industry are unfamiliar with these varieties as well as their unique flavor profiles.  Furthermore, due to many of these rare grapes’ long history of growing in the region, many now feel that they are much more equipped to express the land’s terroir than those varieties recently brought to the region. 

Domestically, here in California, winemaker Tegan Passalacqua of Paso Robles’ Turley Winery, has undertaken a similar project with his Sandlands label.  Working with only own-rooted, head trained vineyards throughout California, Passalacqua is not necessarily looking to work with varieties facing extinction but rather vineyards. 

Old Vine

Due to California’s infestation by the louse known as phylloxera, many vineyards had been uprooted and re-planted onto American rootstock.  Yet a select few vineyards, either planted on sandy soil (in which phylloxera can’t survive) or in specific microclimates, have avoided being uprooted and still continue to produce excellent quality fruit on their own rootstock. 

These vines are often decades, if not centuries old, and produce wines of a rich, complexity that can only be offered by old vines.  Yet much of the varieties that remain on their own rootstock are not of the money making category, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.  Instead, these ancient vines consist of Trousseau Noir, Chenin Blanc and Carignan. 

While these varieties are not facing extinction, as they still have large acreages of plantings in France, domestically these vineyards are at risk of being uprooted in favor of more “popular” varieties.  Thus, with the Sandlands project, Passalacqua hopes to renew interest in these ancient vineyards that will result in a preservation of these old vines.

So What Can You Do About It

Despair not, while many vineyards are on the brink of extinction, all hope is not lost.  Consumer habits may be dictating what is currently being planted, but consumers can be fickle and trends are always changing. 

To combat this overemphasis on “popular” varieties, consider forgoing these traditional wine varieties on your own restaurant wine list in favor of some lesser appreciated grapes.  In addition, try to feature smaller producers who are working with old vine vineyards or unusual varieties. 

And most importantly, encourage your dining patrons to step outside of the box and try wines they may be unfamiliar with.  Wine trends always start small, but in a continuously growing wine market, every little bit counts.