New study on Argentina’s native grapes to be published next year
A study which has seen a team of ampelographers conduct DNA analysis on Argentina’s indigenous grapes, known as Criollas, is due to be published next year.
Speaking during a webinar held by Wines of Argentina, Jorge Prieto, who works for Argentina’s national agriculture institute (INTA) said his team’s findings had proved there was much more variation in the Criolla ‘family’ than had once been thought.
Criolla is the term for a family of grapes that are related to the first varieties brought to Argentina by Spanish missionaries. Vines were first brought to Argentina in 1557 and, for the next three centuries, grapes such as Criolla Chica (otherwise known as País or Mission), Muscat of Alexandria, Criolla Grande, Cereza and Torrontés were the most planted.
However, after the arrival of French agronomist Michel Pouget, who brought over 100 European grape varieties to Argentina, the Criollas began to be replaced.
However, Prieto said they still account for 30% of Argentina’s vineyard surface area. Based in Mendoza, he has been working on a study of both well-known Criollas and samples that had yet to be identified. Out of 50 different vine samples or accessions, his team found that 37 were different varieties and 18 had never been genotyped before, and did not show up in any of the global vine databases. From this, Prieto was able to conclude that they were unique to Argentina.
Before conducting the study, it was believed that most Criollas were the result of crossings between Criolla Chica and Muscat of Alexandria. However, Prieto’s study found a variety of different parents.
Working with teams in Chile, Mexico, Peru and Bolivia, the team is now planting the grape varieties and assessing their aroma and flavour properties. There is also work to document how they have adapted to the conditions in which they have been grown.
“Among the new cultivars evaluated, a huge variability exits in terms of berry weight, sugar accumulation, aromatic and phenolic potential,” Prieto said.
“Some of these varieties have adapted to different environments, for example Cereza is very resistant to salinity, so there are also some studies to see how they can adapt to climate change. We believe they should be cultivated separately to create wines to determine their typicity,” he added.
He noted that white Criollas were also able to maintain low pH levels in their grapes better than other European varieties planted in the same area.
Prieto said he was working with growers in Argentina to develop a stamp or seal to signify wines that have been made from Criolla grapes.
“The stamp would appear on the bottles… and act as a certification that the wine comes from a protected vineyard and a Criolla variety, that the vineyard has been recovered, was endangered or that the winemaker is working to conserve it,” he said.
While not official, Prieto’s team have developed a logo and registered the mark in Argentina. “We home to move forward more next year,” he said. “It will add value to the wine and the vineyards.”
Phil Crozier, European ambassador for Wines of Argentina agrees.
“I really like the idea of this stamp on the label and conserving these old varieties,” he said. “They’re going to be very attractive, in terms of marketing, to consumers particularly the young. These consumers like provenance, and to try things that are unique and different.
“For me, the label is key to getting these wines exported. It is a fantastic story that goes beyond what people know about Argentina. I think Chile should do it, I think the rest of South America should do it.”
Traditionally used to produce high-volume, fruity wines, most Criolla varieties have not been treated with the respect afforded to internationally-recognised grapes. The majority of the wines made from such grapes continue to be sold on the domestic market.
Crozier, however, said the category is gaining “a lot of traction” and believes there’s great potential for such varieties.
“Young winemakers are wanting to preserve Argentina’s history,” he said. “When we talk about Argentina, we usually only go back 25 years because that’s all we know: the first wines arrived in the UK in the early 1990s.”
He said there was now a movement among the younger generation of winemakers to go further back into the past and conserve abandoned vineyards.
This is particularly pressing as a study by Argentina’s National Viticulture Institute (INV) found that varieties that had lost the most hectarage between 2000 and 2018 were Criollas such as Criolla Grande, Pedro Gimenez and Cereza.
Alistair Cooper MW believes the style of the wines produced, being lighted bodied and fruit-forward, is what the market is calling for.
“It’s probably time that we stopped this nonsense about the noble grape varieties,” he said. “These indigenous varieties are far more on a par with what the younger generation want to have on their table. They don’t need to be complex wines all the time. We’re almost going back to how we used to drink.”
One hurdle that does need to be overcome before widespread exporting is labelling. Many of the red wines made with Criollas are simply labelled ‘Criolla’ without reference to the specific variety from which they are made.
Even more confusingly, white grapes made from Pedro Giménez are often labelled as Pedro Ximénez, a grape used in Sherry production. While they both share Spanish heritage, Prieto says they are not related and are “totally different”.
Crozier admits it’s a difficult situation. He suggested there could be “shame” around the term Giménez because traditionally it has been considered an inferior variety.
Formerly the director of wine at London’s Gaucho restaurant group, he said that the story of grape varieties frequently changes.
He said: “I was doing wine lists for 20 years. Torrontés was a grape from Galicia up until about a decade ago. Then it became Argentina’s national grape.”
However, he believes exporters should insist on using the ‘g’ rather than ‘x’ when producers label the white variety.