Efforts of late to investigate, identify and categorise the thousands of grape varieties has done a world of good. Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz set the bar in 2012 with their magnum opus, Wine Grapes, and other localised or generalised accounts abound.
Grapes have long become brands, and remain for many people - novice and expert alike - the fundamental gateway to understanding flavours in wine. So an authoritative classification system is useful.
I would readily admit it's made our work at Red Squirrel easier and more attractive to people. For wine merchants like ourselves with a proclivity for the rare and the unusual, modern grape classification has heightened understanding and interest in grape diversity. Everyone loves something new, and we enjoy ticking items off a list. Dare I say it, ampelography has become sexy.
But. The inevitable but. A genetics-led inquiry may have shone a light on prior misconceptions (Primitivo and Zinfandel, perhaps) and solved mysteries (St Laurent's falsely assumed relationship to Pinot Noir, for instance) but it has also encouraged an excessively reductivist approach. An exercise in broadening our horizons has simultaneously bred conformity that can be unhelpful, misleading and, most importantly of all, dull.
I'm never more reminded of this when considering the Ligurian grape Pigato (photo above), a white variety restricted largely to the area between Genoa and the French border (a curious aside: Kim and Tennille Chalmers told me last year they've planted some in their family's nursery in Victoria). At its best, Ligurian Pigato can be one of the world's finest as well as rarest white wines. It is undoubtedly one of the best with seafood, with it's salty, garrigue herb minerality. And nothing rivals it next to Genoese pesto.
Pigato was the first thing we ever imported at Red Squirrel, and we remain the UK's foremost advocates for Ligurian wines: I say so humbly, of course, as specialising in Ligurian wines over here is a bit like specialising in skiwear in Antigua.
But I do therefore get a bit excited when Decanter lands on my doormat containing a rare feature on Liguria - specifically Ligurian Vermentino, alongside Tuscan and Sardinian examples. The author, Richard Baudains, is an acknowledged authority on northern Italians wines and someone whose opinion I respect; nevertheless he paints a misleading picture of Pigato:
"The production norms in Riviera Ligure di Ponente also recognise a variety called Pigato, which DNA analysis shows to be Vermentino. Unperturbed by the scientific arguments, local wineries continue to produce wines labelled as both, but if you've opened a bottle of Pigato, the truth is you are about to drink a Vermentino."
Now I wouldn't claim to know the truth of the matter, but I do know, having tasted countless Pigato and Vermentino wines from Liguria - even from the same producer - that there is a difference between them. Aside from the fact that the grapes just look different (Pigato has spots, its name derived from the Ligurian word pigau meaning "spotty") stylistically I find that Vermentino tends to be fruitier; Pigato is saltier and more mineral. Sometimes it could be argued this is due to winemaking style or vineyard site, but not always.
Bruna, for instance, is a tiny family-run winery in Ranzo, inland from Savona. It was begun in the 1970s by Riccardo Bruna, a key figure in the safeguarding and latter revival of Pigato. It is now reputedly one of the best but smallest producers of the variety and run by his two daughters, who have vineyards of Vermentino and Pigato planted next to each other. I have tasted wines from the same vintage, made in the same way, and it is as obvious as night and day that these are different varieties.
Returning to Wine Grapes, look up Pigato and we're instructed, "See Vermentino". Turn the pages obediently and we are told:
"Morphological and DNA comparisons have clearly established that Favorita (Piemonte), Pigato (Liguria) and Vermentino (Liguria, Sardegna, Toscana and Corse) are one and the same variety.
So yes, it has allegedly been proven that these two varieties are more likely distant clones than separate varieties. Though caveat emptor, Wine Grapes may be the prevailing authority on this subject but it is not infallible (and how could it be, covering such a vast subject with its research techniques still in their infancy?). For example, the authors inform us that Arinto dos Açores is just another synonym for Sercial, but Azorean winemaker António Maçanita has shown me DNA readings suggesting it is a distinct, native island variety.
Moreover, mere mutations such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio are arguably much closer related than Pigato and Vermentino: are we going to tell people that when they drink a Pinot Noir, the truth is they're drinking a Pinot Grigio? Of course not.
The geneticists are probably entirely correct when they identify the DNA of Vermentino and Pigato as identical. I don't dispute that. I do believe that should we reduce the world of wine to DNA molecules we risk stripping out a lot of the history and local culture that makes wine so endlessly interesting. And in certain cases, like Vermentino versus Pigato, the tangible evidence contradicts the scientific.
But I'm fascinated to know what everyone else's views are on this. Perhaps like the seemingly insoluble debate over minerality, there are some things science just can't explain.
What do you think?
Founder of Red Squirrel Wine