Grapes vines and their family trees

Steve Delaney
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Ampelography is the term applied to the identification and classification of grapevines. The products of grapevines — grapes, raisins, wine and other spirits — have been important in human affairs going back to prehistoric times.

As the trade in such products, particularly wine, grew in economic importance, it became important to know what vines you were planting.

The practise of ampelography was formalized in the 1800s. Vines were classified according to the shape and position of leaves, and the colour, shape and size of the grapes and grape clusters. It was assumed that vines which were long known to have grown in close association with each other, and shared some similarities of form, were likely related. In Burgundy, Chardonnay was long called Pinot Chardonnay in recognition of a belief it was related in some fashion to Pinot Noir (which was correct).

There was also considerable effort to determine if vines from different regions were actually the same vine or not. Sometimes there were similarities in names that helped, or conversely, falsely associated dissimilar varieties.

There are five other Vernaccias in Italy and none of them is related to the one in

last week’s column, the Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Spain’s Garnacha is, however, the same as southern France’s Grenache. Many grapes were known by names which assumed foreign origins for the variety, such as Portugal’s Touriga Franca suggesting an import of the variety from France.

The older and more important a grape variety the more local names attached to it over time. Tinto Toro, Tinto Pais, Tinto Fina, and perhaps another 100 labels all refer to the Tempranillo grape of Spain and Portugal. It is the job of ampelography to sort through all these conflicting names and stories, identify the unique varieties, and categorize the vines and their relationships. Until modern times that was a daunting task.

DNA typing has become ubiquitous in forensic science and courtroom dramas. It has also simplified the world of the ampelographer. It has settled speculation of the origins of certain varieties and established previously unsuspected relationships.

Since the Americas do not have native vitis vinifera grapes, California’s Zinfandel had to come from somewhere. Was it created locally by combining other varieties, or did it have a twin somewhere else? DNA sampling and a lot of sleuthing proved that Zinfandel and Primitivo, which was established in southern Italy a couple of hundred years ago, were both clonal variations of the Crljenak grape of Croatia.

Similarly, Pinot Noir has been found to be one of the parents, with Gouais Blanc, of an entire family of well known varieties including Chardonnay, Gamay, Aligoté and Auxerrois. The Rhône white variety Viognier is a close relative of the robust red Nebbiolo.

Filling out the family tree of grapevines and mapping the historical locations of older varieties is proving to be a fascinating study of trade routes and associations over the centuries.

• • •

 Just a couple of wine notes from the past week:

Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay 2011, California: citrus, cream and nutty aromas, medium body — 14/Good

Concha y Toro Trio Reserve 2011, Chile: Tropical fruit aromas with some lemon fresh zing — 15/Very Good

Steve Delaney is a member of the Opimian Society. Email him at

Twitter: @delaneystephen

Organizations: Opimian Society

Geographic location: California, Spain, Portugal Burgundy Italy Southern France Americas Southern Italy Chile

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