Wine Grapes and All That

‘Verdelho should not be confused with GODELLO, a variety from Galicia in Spain that is also cultivated in the Portuguese Dao region under the name Verdelho or Verdelho do Dão. . . . It has been suggested that Madeira’s Verdelho is identical to a Sicilian variety called Verdicchio (often erroneously spelt Verdecchio, unidentified, but distinct from VERDICCHIO BIANCO.)’


‘The Scots (originally Irish, but by now Scotch) were at this time inhabiting Ireland, having driven the Irish (Picts) out of Scotland; while the Picts (originally Scots) were now Irish (living in brackets) and vice versa. It is essential to keep these distinctions clearly in mind (and verce visa).’


One of these quotes is from 1066 and All That by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman and one is from Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz. I’m sure readers will know which is which.

We tend to think that learning about grape varieties is as an easy way into wine: Cabernet Sauvignon tastes of blackcurrants and smells of tobacco, Riesling of limes and kerosene. To an extent this is true. Initially it seems so much easier than learning about the French appellation contrôlée system or the German wine laws. The problem comes when you delve a little deeper into exactly which grapes are in your wine.

I bought a bottle of wine from my local wine merchant, Bottle Apostle, a couple of weeks ago called Camillo de Lellis Biferno Bianco 2010 from Molise in Central Italy. I’ve had a few vintages of their red so was curious about the white. I didn’t pay any attention to the grape varieties mentioned on the back of the bottle until I got home where I was disappointed to know it was made from Trebbiano and something called Bombino Bianco. Trebbiano, known as Ugni Blanc in France, is considered one of the world’s dullest grapes suitable only for distillation; it’s used to make Cognac. Still I’d paid for it so I thought I should drink it. Initially it tasted very neutral with just some lemons and a vague nuttiness. After a while I started to notice what a lovely texture it has, a certain sherry-like oiliness. The nuttiness takes on a distinct almondy note and then there are peaches and a little bitter twist like peach stones. Very pretty, reminding me simultaneously of white burgundy and perhaps an aged Australian Semillon or Marsanne. Excellent value at £9.99. So it would seem that Trebbiano in the right hands can be good.

But which Trebbiano? Wine Grapes lists eight different kind. The famously dull one is Trebbiano Toscana. Seeing as my wine is from Molise, it’s probably made from Trebbiano d’Abruzzo which, DNA profiling has shown, is not related to the dull Tuscan variety. In fact, it may be related or even identical to Bombino Bianco, a native of Puglia. The back label to the wine is not helpful as the Italian suggests that Trebbiano and Bombino are the same whereas the translation seems to be saying that it is made from two grapes, Trebbiano and Bombino.

That’s the problem with grape varieties, they’re slippery little bastards. All that Chilean Merlot you drank in the 90s turned out to be Carmenere. Recently the Australian have been getting very excited about their Albariños, a grape native to North West Spain (like Godello). Now it seems that many may actually made from Savagnin – a grape from which Gewurztraminer mutated from. See how slippery they are, one minute you’ve got a Savagnin and then it mutates into a crazy pink grape that makes wine that smells of rose petals and lychees.

According to Wine Grapes, the Pinot family, Noir, Meunier, Gris and Blanc, are genetically identical. In fact more than one type of pinot have been found in the same vine. It’s one of the things I love most about wine is that just when you think you’ve grasped something, it slips out of your grasp. Buy this amazing work of scholarship and you’ll realise quite how little you know.  I’ll be writing more on this book in future.

About Henry

I’m a drinks writer. My day job is features editor at the Master of Malt blog. I also contribute to BBC Good Food, the Spectator and others. You can read some of my work here. I’ve done a bit of radio, given some talks and written a couple of books (Empire of Booze, The Home Bar and the forthcoming Cocktail Dictionary).
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