grape varietal diversity

How Many Different Wine Grapes Exist in the World?

The standard answer ranges from about 8,000 to 10,000.  In Italy alone, there are about 2,000 grape varieties in Italy alone! 

Wine expert Jancis Robinson lists 1,368 varieties of grape vines in her opus, Wine Grapes, published in October 2012. The book includes varieties currently in commercial production.  

But even this book doesn’t begin to touch on the numbers of different vines that exist around the world. It doesn’t begin to touch the number of native varieties in Italy alone, the country with the most. 

According to Wikipedia, Italy's Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MIPAAF), documented over 350 grapes and granted them "authorized" status. There are more than 500 other documented varieties. 

Whatever the number, how many can you name?

    1. Cabernet Sauvignon
    2. Merlot
    3. Chardonnay
    4. Pinot Grigio
    5. Sauvignon Blanc
    6. Pinot Noir
    7. Grenache
    8. Syrah
    9. Zinfandel

Do you know Sangiovese or Tempranillo? Pinot Gris or Viognier? 

The truth is most people know about only a few of the many wine varieties. And if they drink blended wines, they may have no idea which grapes make up the blend. 

A Brief Scientific Summary of Wine Vines

The term “biodiversity” means the variety and variability of biological life on Earth. It encompasses variationsin geneticsspecies, and ecosystems.

  • As a matter of science, wine grapevines belong to the Vitaceae (grape) family and the Vitis genus. There are 14 genera with 910 species (known) in the grape family.
  • The Vitis genus is made up of 79 species that include both wine and table grapes. Examples include: 
 Species Origin Uses
vinifera Eurasia Wine
labrusca North America Wine
riparia North America Table grapes/rootstock for grafting *
aestivalis Eastern US Norton grape used for wine
rotundifolia Southeast US Muscadine wine and jam
rupestris Southern US Phylloxera resistant rootstock for grafting *

* vinifera grapevines are grafted onto rupestris or ripaira rootstocks to avoid disease.

  • Fine wine comes from the Vitis vinifera species. Wine made from Vitis labrusca has a distinct flavor different from that of vinifera. In Missouri and a few other states, the Norton grape makes a fine wine.
  • For thousands of years grape vines were cross-fertilized and manipulated. This was done both naturally and by human hand resulting in rich biodiversity.

Why You Aren’t Enjoying Such Incredible Wine Diversity

Jancis Robinson’s book lists the following numbers of grape varieties by country:

    • Italy – 377 
    • France – 204
    • Spain – 84
    • Portugal – 77
    • Germany & United States – 76 each
    • Croatia & Switzerland – 39 each
    • Hungary - 34
    • And 32 other countries with 283 total varieties!

So why are you still drinking only Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay? 

Would you like to try the Nebbiolo/Syrah cross called Rubin from Bulgaria? Why not a Blaufrankisch from Austria or any one of the 27 varieties from Georgia (the country?)

There are many reasons why the U.S. has so few options when it comes to wine, many of them rooted in history. 

One reason we lack access to the wide variety of wines from around the world is due to our three-tier distribution system.  Consolidation over the years has reduced competition at each level, effectively reducing choice.

Before consolidation, small importers and distributors focused on unique and satisfying wines. Now huge corporations are focused on growth and profits, not consumers.

If you want to try distinctive wines of place, you have to look outside the traditional system. 

Large suppliers such as Gallo or Constellation won’t carry them. You won’t find them from large distributors like Southern Glazer’s or Republic National either.

The answer is searching out smaller alternative importers and distributors.

Where to Find More Interesting Wine

People who value the wine experience want to explore the diversity the wine world offers.

At Big Hammer Wines, our passion is providing our customers with unique, special and limited wines. Our mission is to find hidden gems that are emerging from a crowded field.

We continually expand our portfolio to reflect the diversity of the wine world. 

Our professional team of sommeliers and other wine experts taste over 4,500 wines every year, so you don’t have to. We carry only high-quality wines and sell them at the best possible price. 

Contact Big Hammer Wines today and start drinking more interesting, and better, wine!  Atypical wines are abounding and offer a world of flavors. Enjoy the exploration.

Comments (1 Response)

05 February, 2020

Everett M. Yon

Greg, what a fun & informative read. I guess Jancis knows where to send the check. … another wine book to read…

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