By | WINE SEARCHER | Posted Tuesday, 07-Jan-2014

A new database of grape plantings documents a rapidly changing wine world.
Airen, grenache and rkatsiteli were the world’s most widely planted grape varieties 20 years ago, but mighty cabernet sauvignon and merlot have since knocked them from their top slots.
That’s just one of the findings released by the University of Adelaide, Australia, which has published what they’re calling the
first database of the world’s wine grapes and regions. Compiled over the past year using statistics from more than 500 regions in 44 countries, with information on 1,271 varieties, the database covers 99% of global wine production, its authors claim.

Former front-runner airen « was a pretty forgettable grape in Spain that went out of popularity, » Professor Kym Anderson told Wine-Searcher. «  People just ripped it out, especially when there were subsidies for vine pull, and replaced them, mostly with reds. »  While airen remains the most-planted grape variety in Spain, covering nearly a quarter of the country’s vineyards in 2010, its share has fallen by 8% — nearly 140,000 hectares — in the last decade.

By contrast, tempranillo has enjoyed a boom, rising from a little over 5% of Spain’s vineyards to 20%.  Indeed, in the 10 years to 2010, 140,000 hectares of tempranillo were planted, making it the fastest-expanding variety in the world.  It’s likely that tempranillo has replaced many vineyards that were previously planted to airen.

Tempranillo is king in the Spanish region of Rioja
© Rioja Wine | Tempranillo is king in the Spanish region of Rioja

When it comes to rkatsiteli, a white variety known for its ability to reach high sugar levels and retain acidity, the collapse of the Iron Curtain played a large part in its decline.  “The fall of the Soviet Union led to a fall in hectares [of rkatsiteli] in those countries that were part of the Union,” explained Anderson.  In addition, this ancient grape was one of the casualties of Mikhail Gorbachev’s vine-pull scheme, but it still remains the most-planted variety in Georgia today.

The University of Adelaide statistics also show a move towards greater homogeneity of varieties, in part as a result of the success of varietal labeling.  Globally, 35 varieties accounted for 59% of the world’s wine grapes by area in 2000, but by 2010 that share was 66%.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that in recent years, there has been a rising tide of producers moving back to indigenous and « alternative » varieties.  The aim of these winemakers is to return to their native roots and/or diversify their offerings.  However, this trend is too recent to have been picked up by the Adelaide researchers.  “There is a movement towards [diversity],” said Anderson. “That’s something that Jancis Robinson mentions in her ‘Wine Grapes’ book.  I put our data to her and pointed out that it’s not showing up.  The trend must be more recent than 2010. »

The Adelaide database uncovers changing trends in consumer preferences.  “In 2000, white wine grapes were more widely grown.  However, in the decade to 2010 red wine grapes increased their share of the global vine-bearing area from 49% to 55%,” reported Anderson.  “This is consistent with what we know about changes in wine consumption, with numerous countries moving away from white and consumption rising in recent years in China where red wine is preferred. »

As the wine world changes, another important factor is climate change, which is influencing the grapes that wine producers are choosing to plant.  « They’re continually on the lookout for attractive varieties that perform well in climates similar to what they expect theirs to become in the decades ahead, » he said.

In addition, technological advances in grape growing and winemaking have given a boost to some varieties: « grapes that have been difficult to grow, like fiano in Campania, people now know how to make good wine from them.

The world’s 10 most-planted varieties in 2010
1. Cabernet sauvignon
2. Merlot
3. Airen
4. Tempranillo
5. Chardonnay
6. Syrah
7. Garnacha tinta
8. Sauvignon blanc
9. Trebbiano Toscano
10. Pinot noir

and 20 years ago, in 1990
1. Airen
2. Garnacha tinta
3. Rkatsiteli
4. Sultaniye
5. Trebbiano Toscana
6. Mazuelo
7. Merlot
8. Cabernet sauvignon
9. Monastrell
10. Bobal

* The free database is available to download. An e-book can also be downloaded from the University of Adelaide Press.

© Rebecca Gibb — Wine Searcher