Wine

Inside the Movement to Revive Forgotten Grape Varieties

As a means of fighting climate change and preserving history, producers across Europe are reviving grape varieties that have never been cultivated for modern, commercial wine production

A pair of hands hold 2 different grape varieties
In the face of climate change, winemakers are researching, preserving, and vinifying ancestral grape varieties. Photo courtesy of Venissa.

In the early 1980s, Miguel A. Torres of Familia Torres winery began placing yearly advertisements in local papers and magazines throughout his home region of Catalonia, Spain. The ads invited anyone who knew of unidentified grapevines that might be growing in the countryside or in villages to contact the winery. The open call would officially launch a more than 30-year project aimed at restoring Catalonia’s ancestral grape varieties, many of which had been lost to phylloxera during the late 19th century. 

Each year, the winery received a few calls in response. Over the years, the family has recovered and studied more than 54 varieties, and many have been cultivated in Familia Torres library vineyards to study their long-term quality and viability. While the project continues, three of these ancestral varieties have become single-variety releases in the Torres portfolio, including Forcada, a white grape discovered in the foothills of the Roca Forcada Mountains; Gonfaus, a low-yielding red variety with concentrated red and black fruit and spicy undertones; and Pirene, the so-called “Pinot Noir of Catalonia,” named for its original discovery near the Pyrenees mountains.

The project originated as a means to preserve forgotten varieties, but in 2000, the family shifted its focus towards climate change. Instead of selecting varieties that were the highest in quality, they began looking for varieties with potential to adapt to the changing climate.

“We were looking for grapes that could achieve good acidity and also achieve maturity later than others,” says Mireia Torres Maczassek, the director of knowledge and innovation for Familia Torres, and the daughter of Miguel. “With climate change, we can’t only look to one solution. The potential of other varieties that are naturally well suited to Catalonia is a component we can address.” 

Torres is not alone. Across historic European regions, producers have been reviving varieties that were all but lost. The Catalan Institute of Vine and Wine and the Institute for Agrifood Research and Technology in Spain are both conducting studies on ancestral varieties. Further south, in Jerez, the Consejo Regulador of DO Jerez-Xérès-Sherry now officially allows the use of six regionally native, white, pre-phylloxera grape varieties: Beba, Cañocazo, Mantúo Castellano, Mantúo de Pilas, Perruno, and Vigiriega, alongside Palomino, Moscatel, and Pedro Ximénez. 

Much of this revival stems from a desire to preserve the history of a region, but many are also looking to these forgotten varieties as a potential way to combat climate change. In more ways than one, these ancestral vines are helping producers look to the past in order to secure a future.

Preserving Heritage in the Veneto

Preserving regional heritage is the central goal for Matteo Bisol and his wine brand Venissa. A native of Valdobbiadene, where his family is known for Prosecco brands Bisol and Jeio, Matteo carries on the production of the indigenous white grape variety Dorona di Venezia. 

Dorona had been cultivated for centuries until it nearly became extinct after a great flood in 1966. The grape is native to the islands of Mazzorbo, Burano, and Torcello in the Venetian Lagoon east of the coastal city. In 2002, Bisol’s father Gianluca found 88 vine selections of the forgotten variety in a private garden. Its ability to thrive in shallow soils—where salty seawater is found just a meter below the surface—is the hallmark of this so-called “golden grape” of Venice. 

Photograph of Matteo Bisol of Venissa in front of a vineyard
Venissa owner Matteo Bisol is working to preserve a Venetian grape variety that was nearly wiped out by natural disaster. Photo credit: Kevin Day.

“Though they are a part of Venetian culture, these islands have their own heritage that’s different than the city of Venice,” says Bisol, who notes that before motorboats existed, rowing to the mainland for supplies took up to three hours. “People who lived on the islands had their own fishing, agriculture, and wine industries to survive. When we found this variety that is unique only to this place, we were determined to keep it alive.”

Bisol manages 10 hectares of Dorona di Venezia, which is said to originate from the Garganega and Trebbiano varieties. In deference to the artisanal Venetian heritage, Venissa’s bottles are crafted from Murano glass and labeled with a gold-leaf design indicative of historic hammered gold art. Though fewer than 4,000 bottles of Venissa’s Dorona di Venezia are produced annually, it remains a highly allocated wine that sells out each year.

Prepping for a Warmer Climate In Sicily

On the rugged Mediterranean island of Sicily, family-owned winery Donnafugata has long championed a balance between tradition and innovation. The brother and sister team of Antonio and José Rallo, Donnafugata’s co-CEOs, have served an integral part in shepherding a region-wide study of native varieties in Sicily. Through the Sicilia DOC consortium, the project has identified and developed 70 varieties since 2009, some of which are more widely cultivated in the region, and some of which are not, such as Vitarolo and Alzano. 

A close up of grapes on the vine
Many winemakers are preserving historical grape varieties from the threat of climate change. Photo courtesy of Familia Torres.

“Thanks to this research, we’ve been able to bring back numerous varieties that had almost disappeared,” says Antonio, who also serves as the agronomist for Donnafugata and the chairman of the DOC. 

Though it’s a single island, Sicily is vast in terms of its diversity of soils, climate, and growing conditions. The investment in research from the consortium has helped establish the region as a leader in native grape research, an initiative that is as significant for Sicilian heritage as it is for addressing the changing climate. 

“All of this is important for the future in viticulture for Sicily especially with climate change,” says Antonio. “We’ve been really lucky in Sicily to not really be affected in the same way as regions in central Europe. But we know that as things keep changing, the Mediterranean Sea will be warmer and we will begin to see changes such as significantly more rain.” 

Over the years, the project has analyzed the flavors and viticultural characteristics of the varieties in hopes of determining which are best suited for long-term cultivation in the region. 

“With this research, we hope we can make some crosses so that we can have some clones, selections, and biotypes in the future that might be better for new conditions,” says Antonio. “It is important, of course, to be more friendly to the world we have today, but also so that we have something to offer the next generation.” 

Selling Forgotten Grapes in the U.S. Market 

Though their general obscurity makes these wines more of a hand-sell in restaurants and bars, they are catching on with sommeliers who are always on the hunt for delicious wine with a good story. 

While many consumers may gravitate towards larger, better-known wine regions like Napa, Burgundy, or Rioja, Alicia Schmidt, the wine director for Austin, Texas-based Emmer Hospitality Group, likes to broaden the scope with wines from lesser-known regions or producers. Now, lesser-known varieties add another card to the deck. 

A wide landscape photograph of a Familia Torres vineyard
By preserving varieties of cultural significance, winemakers pull the interest of curious consumers. Photo courtesy of Familia Torres.

“The Torres Forcada offers two important elements,” says Schmidt, who added it to the wine list at Hestia, one of Emmer’s six restaurants. “The story about the effort the Torres family has put into developing these varieties is so compelling. And it also happens to be really delicious.”

For Schmidt, the hand-sell is worth it. “These kinds of wines are niche, but they fit for guests who are open to experimentation,” she says. “And they’re the things that make a somm want to get up in the morning and share wine with people.” 

These producers represent only a sampling of many who are exploring grape varieties of the past. Galvanized by a desire to preserve heritage while combating future climate challenges, and propelled by the exceptional wines produced along the way, these producers have realized that forgotten varieties are indeed a pathway to the future.

Dispatch

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Jessica Dupuy is a wine, spirits, and food writer based in Austin, Texas, whose credits include work in Texas Monthly, Imbibe magazine, Wine Enthusiast magazine, Sommelier Journal, and The Tasting Panel magazine and with the Guild of Sommeliers. A Certified Sommelier, Certified Specialist of Wine, and Certified Specialist of Spirits, she holds the Diploma in Wines through the Wine & Spirits Education Trust. Dupuy keeps her palate sharp through travel, reading, and endless tasting.

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