Monday, October 5, 2020

Wine grape varieties: where in the world are they?

We have all become aware of the changes that have been occurring within viticulture over the past few years. Grape-growing has a long tradition in many regions, often relatively unchanged over extended periods of time. However, this is now changing rapidly, in response to an obviously altered climate this century. This topic should provide the impetus for a few blog posts.

However, to get started, we might consider where various wine-grape varieties are grown now, before we consider any of the changes — I also had a bit of a look at this topic back in March (Which countries are similar to each other, in terms of their grape varieties?). The information for this new post comes from Table 100 of:
Anderson, K. and S. Nelgen (2020) Which Winegrape Varieties are Grown Where? A Global Empirical Picture (revised edition). University of Adelaide Press: Adelaide.

What we have here is a compilation of the estimated growing areas in the year 2016 for 300 wine-grape varieties in 50 countries. Note that China is reportedly the world's biggest grape producer, but only 11% of these grapes are used to make wine (the rest are table grapes, including raisins). Here, the focus is on wine grapes only.

This is obviously rather complicated information (300 varieties x 50 countries), and so we need some summary images, in order to grasp the overall picture.

We could start, for example, by comparing the so-called New World with the Old one. Modern viticulture proliferated in south and central Europe (the Old World) and spread from there with various colonial invasions of the other continents (the New World, although obviously the native peoples did not see it that way), principally North and South America, and Australasia, but also bits of Africa and Asia.

The following graph provides a summary of the growing area summed over the various countries of the Old World (horizontally) and the New World (vertically) for each grape variety (represented by the points). The top 12 most abundant varieties globally are highlighted in pink, and are named, except for Sangiovese (where I couldn't fit the label in), and with Côt (aka Malbec) added.

Areas of grape varieties in the New and Old Worlds

The dashed line indicates equal vineyard areas in the New and Old Worlds. Note that the New World areas of Cabernet Sauvignon and Côt (Malbec) greatly exceed those of the Old World, while for Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc they are about equal. For the other major varieties, the Old World areas exceed those of the New.

Cabernet Sauvignon is widespread throughout the both the New and Old Worlds, while Côt (Malbec) is mostly grown in Argentina. Syrah (aka Shiraz) is becoming more widespread in the New World, being a good candidate for many areas where the climate is becoming drier — it might soon reach equality between Old and New. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are also widespread, although the latter is particularly popular in New Zealand.

Merlot has never been as popular in the New World as it is in the Old — Cabernet was chosen to emulate the Bordeaux wines, but not Merlot. The other popular grapes from the Old World have not yet caught on elsewhere — Tempranillo and Airén from Spain, Garnacha Tinta (aka Grenache) from Spain and France, Trebbiano Toscano from France and Italy, and Sangiovese from Italy. Pinot Noir and Riesling have always been a bit specialist, even in the Old World, as they require careful handling in suitable sites, in order to produce good wines.

We can now proceed to an overall picture of the varietal makeup of the the different countries, using a more complex illustration. I have previously explained the use of networks, to display complex relationships (Summarizing multi-dimensional wine data as graphs, Part 2: networks). We cannot just lump countries together into simple groups, because they each have their own particular make-up.

To produce the network, I first calculated the percent of each grape variety as a component of the viticultural area in each country, and then calculated the similarity among pairs of countries using the Bray-Curtis measure. The latter is important because it ignores varieties that do not occur in either of the two countries being compared (otherwise, two countries would be similar because of all of the varieties neither one has). Finally, I used the similarities to calculate a NeighborNet network, as shown next (click to enlarge).

Network of countries based on grape composition

Countries that are closely connected in the network (along the edges) are more similar to each other, in terms of their grape varietal composition, than they are to countries further away.

Note, first, that all of the countries have a lot of uniqueness — the terminal edges leading to each country are much longer than are the complex of connecting edges in the middle of the network. For example, Portugal has obvious similarities to Spain, as they share 43 of the 300 listed varieties; but Spain has 42 other varieties that Portugal does not have, while Portugal has 25 that Spain does not — the differences between the two countries exceed the similarities. Moreover, countries like Greece, Cyprus and Ethiopia are very distinct. Indeed, they are each dominated by a single variety that is found in few other places.

Second, none of the countries form clear groups that are separate from other groups, except for Morocco + Tunisia, which are almost identical, sharing all 15 of their grape varieties. There are, however, quite a few neighborhoods, where countries form close connections, but these neighborhoods connect in complex ways to the other neighborhoods.

Some of these neighborhoods are geographical, but others are not. Notably, if we look at the countries of South America, we can see that they are very different in terms of grape varietal composition — clockwise from the top: Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina; even Mexico is different. New World vineyards are certainly not all the same!

Perhaps the most obvious country collection is Austria + Slovakia + Czechia, all of them having a lot of Grüner Veltliner and Graševina, along with some Sankt Laurent (which variety occurs almost nowhere else). These countries are also somewhat similar to Germany + Luxembourg, all five of them having a lot of Riesling and Müller-Thurgau.

Georgia + Kazakhstan form an obvious pair, both being dominated by the Rkatsiteli grape. Likewise, Ukraine + Russia are similar (dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, Aligoté, and Rkatsiteli), along with Moldova (which also has a lot of Merlot, plus the Moldova grape), and also with some similarity to Romania (which has large areas of Fetească Albă and Fetească Regală instead of Rkatsiteli). Japan has obvious similarities to South Korea (based on Kyoho, and Muscat Bailey A). However, in all of these cases the differences are still bigger than the similarities.

It will come as no surprise to you that the vineyards of United States and Australia are similar, being dominated by, in particular, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay; however, they actually share 58 varieties, although they do occur in very difference abundances (Australia has another 34 non-shared varieties, and the US has 15).

On the other hand, it may surprise you that the countries with the most similar grape make-up to New Zealand are Myanmar and India. New Zealand differs from almost all other countries by being so heavily dominated by Sauvignon Blanc, comprising 58% of its vineyard area. Well, Myanmar has only 70 ha of vines, but 31% of these are Sauvignon Blanc; and India has c. 2,700 ha, with Sauvignon Blanc at 19%. Now you know!


The global vineyard is changing, as it always has done. New varieties have arisen in particular places, and become established as a valued part of the environment. This has progressively made old-established vineyards different from each other. As people have moved, they have taken their favorite vines with them. Some of these varieties have become popular in their new homes, but each home has been somewhat different. This also makes economic sense, of course, since there is little reason for competing head-to-head in a global marketplace, Future changes will be driven by these same impetuses.

1 comment:

  1. David states:

    "New Zealand differs from almost all other countries by being so heavily dominated by Sauvignon Blanc, comprising 58% of its vineyard area."

    That's a de facto monoculture.

    If I were a vintner in New Zealand, I would be a little uneasy over the thought that a future disease or pest that has an affinity for the Sauvignon Blanc wine grape could blight my vineyards . . . leading to financial ruin.

    David talked about diversity here:

    "Grape diversity is not the only biodiversity that vineyards need"



    "The wine industry has become increasingly aware that it must address climate change, as I have written about recently (Climate change and the most northerly vineyards in Europe). In particular, the concept of biodiversity means that reliance on a few grape-vine varieties is inappropriate for long-term profitability (Regional diversity of grape varieties is important for climate change).

    "Equally important, however, are agricultural practices, and their affect on the world. It is therefore worth asking: how does this affect the wine industry? After all, traditional viticulture involved completely clearing the native plants and animals, and turning the land into a regularly plowed monoculture.

    "This image does not look good in the modern world, where biodiversity counts. . . ."