Wine is not exempt from conversations about colonization and colonialism. Even the terms “Old World and New World” are rooted in colonialist thought.
In some instances, transplanted grapes had even been marginalized and forgotten in their homelands and were dying to belong.
As people migrated with culinary and agricultural traditions in tow, certain grape varieties came to be associated or even synonymous with regions far beyond their countries of origin. These grapes traveled through untrodden lands, where growers and settlers experimented with them, and where they subsequently thrived in their new, foreign home and became a national symbol of pride. These are their stories.
The phylloxera blight in Europe was one of the greatest agricultural tragedies to affect wine production in modern times. It brought the European wine industry to its knees in the 1800s, but for Chile, it turned out to be a boon. Thus begins the story of Carmenère’s success there.
Chile’s Carmenère about as diverse a lineage as grapes—or anything, for that matter—come. Ancient Romans were said to have brought the grapes to Italy. Carmenère’s parents include Cabernet Franc and Gros Cabernet, a variety with Spanish origins. However, Carmenère is also considered one of the original Bordeaux varieties, and via France is how it is believed to have made its name in Chile.
In the mid-1800s, Carmenère fell out of favor in Bordeaux due to how difficult it was to cultivate. Its low-yielding bunches were prone to shatter and disease, and it was hard to grow in Bordeaux’s climate.
Because a large amount of French plantings of the variety were wiped out during the phylloxera infestation, and replanting of the variety post-phylloxera was largely abandoned, Carmenère was thought to be extinct.
In 1994, however, DNA testing proved it was present (under the guise of Merlot vines) in Chile.
According to numerous accounts, the grape was thought to have been brought to Chile before phylloxera hit Europe’s vineyards in the 1850s, but much of Carmenère’s story is shrouded in mystery. Supposedly, enterprising coal-mining families absconded with plant material from Bordeaux in the 1850s. Rigorous record keeping was not emphasized during those days, so Carmenère was brought to Chile masquerading as Merlot.
Later it was learned that Carmenère loves warm and arid climates, like Chile, which also allows for longer ripening times, a benefit to a slow-ripening grape like Carmenère.
Though Carmenère is considered Chile’s signature variety, it only comprises 8% of the plantings in all the country. Those plantings make up roughly 11,000 acres of vines and a whopping 80% of Carmenère’s global plantings, according to trade organization Wines of Chile. However, over time, the variety evolved and mutated to become distinctly Chilean.
At the base of the snow-capped Andes Mountains lies Mendoza, Argentina’s most famous wine region.
It may be hard to believe, but Malbec arrived in Chile before it arrived in Argentina.
Chilean government officials wanted to follow in the footsteps of the great wines of France, which were considered the pinnacle of winemaking in the late 1800s so they looked to French agronomists and ampelographers like Michel Aimé Pouget and Argentine Governor Domingo Faustino Sarmiento for counsel. They established what would be considered today an agronomy training center. One of the center’s first tasks was to bring plant material back from Europe for analysis and possible vinification.
In the middle of the 19th century, the center’s workers sojourned to Bordeaux to bring cuttings back to Chile. In 1885, a railway that linked Chile to Argentina carried European immigrants, mostly from Italy and Spain, who brought their winemaking expertise to Argentina, and that was one of the keys to the expansion of Malbec and allowed widespread distribution of wine throughout the region.
A dark-skinned grape, Malbec is the progeny of Magdeleine Noire and Prunelard, two fairly obscure black grape varieties. It is thought to be around 2,000 years old. Romans identified the variety during their travels throughout France, according to Dr. Laura Catena Zapata, coauthor of Malbec Mon Amour, an homage to her most beloved grape.
Catena further explains that during the Middle Ages, Eleanor of Aquitaine, former French queen who inherited the Southwestern portion of France from her father, preferred drinking wines from the regions where she reigned, instead of selections from Burgundy and the Loire, regions of choice for the aristocratic class. Her territory included Cahors, a region in Southwest France near Bordeaux that’s considered Malbec’s first home in France, which aided in increasing the grape’s visibility and popularity.
As transitions of power took place, however, Malbec migrated. Eventually it landed nearby, in Bordeaux, where it is known as one of the six original varieties. At one time, it was the most planted variety in Bordeaux, though it never had a star turn. It always played a supporting role in the Cabernet– or Merlot-dominated blends that were popular at the time.
Argentina was integral to Malbec’s success because of its climate. Like Carmenère, Malbec thrives in warmer weather where frost and rot aren’t of concern. It is now the most planted variety in all of Argentina, which is home to 75% of the world’s Malbec plantings.
Malbec didn’t always find favor in Argentina, though. According to the South America Wine Guide, many Malbec vines, over the period of about 30 years in the 20th century, were ripped up and planted with other, more well-known varieties. But some winemakers knew that Malbec would come up in a big way.
And they were right.
Consumers began to enjoy the Malbec wines made by skillful hands, raising the reputation of the grape in its adopted home and abroad.
To understand how Loire’s heralded white grape, Chenin Blanc, arrived in South Africa is to understand the entirety of the South African wine industry, says Irina von Holdt, a journalist and Cape Wine Master in South Africa who traced Chenin’s history to and through South Africa.
In the 1600s, the Dutch descended on the region as competitors with Portuguese traders. Their initial idea, according to von Holdt, was to plant gardens and vineyards for sailors to supply them with food as fuel on their travels, and to save costs on foreign wine from Spain and Portugal.
Jan van Riebeeck, a Dutchman based in Holland, spearheaded the original vineyard plantings by requesting vine cuttings from France. The Loire was appealing because of the free trade agreement among destinations along the Loire River at the time, and because many citizens of that part of France shared the same Protestant ideology of van Riebeeck himself.
Van Riebeeck’s cuttings eventually arrived in South Africa circa 1655. Since there had never been a culture of grape growing, no one really knew where to start. Farming other crops such as wheat or barley was very different. Not only was the fruit foreign to South African soil, but the Dutch colonists also didn’t know where in the Loire the grapes came from, or their names, so they used their own language to name this foreign variety that was now distinctly theirs.
In South Africa, Chenin Blanc is known as “Steen.” Some think that the etymology of the word was, quite literally, lost in translation. The Chenin Blanc Association suggests that “it seems that the origin of the names Fransdruif and Steen are intertwined. There is a theory that the name ‘Steen’ developed when the Dutch who settled in the Cape decoded ‘Listan’ to ‘La Stan,’ then ‘De Steen’ and finally ‘Steen.'”
Given the complexities of these and other global histories, where do we go from here?
One thing we can do is to embrace new varieties, vine species and hybrids as they come instead of expecting assimilation and acculturation of varieties. Each variety, like each place or region, has its own merits and they should be lauded, not turned into something they’re not.
Instead of “othering” or “adapting” to environments, understanding these grapes in their indigenous place, and from historical and political contexts can teach a new generation of drinkers about what the world of wine is all about: global perspective.