VITIS VINIFERA ... Bags Packed and Ready to Go ...
Sunday, October 11, 2015 at 4:56PM
Linda Johnson-Bell

It's not because Chardonnay CAN be grown everywhere that it SHOULD be grown everywhere ...


Throughout my career, my experiences in the vineyards have confirmed my belief that because the vitis vinifera is indigenous to Central Asia and the Mediterranean basin, that any attempt to grow it outside of its home habitat would produce an inferior product. It is a cool-climate plant and has no business in a valley floor in Napa or Maipo. I have always contended that whilst variations of a theme of Chardonnay (for example) should be accepted, for me, all non-indigenous, or non-Burgundian versions were not only “different”, but “inferior”. A rather conservative view that is not always appreciated.  But, would you rather eat an apple grown in Florida, or in Washington state? That said, if I follow that thread to its logical conclusion, I would then have to pretty much discount all wine regions west of the Black Sea. Because, in a properly historical context, France is “New World”. So I thought about it some more.

We are happy to say that Sauvignon blanc, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are “indigenous” to Bordeaux. But they are not. They were brought there. I once overheard a very heated discussion between two colleagues at a wine judging event in Bergamo, Italy. We were tasting only Merlots from the surrounding region. The debate was concerning whether or not Merlot was “indigenous” or “traditional” to the region, having been planted there over 150 years ago. The winner of the debate (if such a debate can be won) argued that 150 years constitutes “traditional” and anything much older, as “indigenous”. But as climates changed, and as humans travelled towards Europe, they took the wine grape with them and cultivated it in their new homes … in Greece, in Italy, in France. The wine grapes acclimated and adapted. Which means that vitis vinifera should do the same in the New World. So I thought about it some more.

This is what I came up with. If vitis vinifera adapted so well in Europe, it was because its climate was so similar to that of its original home. Also, it was given a very long time to settle in. Which means that my stance still holds water. Sending the wine grape off to warmer and drier climates than to which it was accustomed, without so much as a bottle of sunscreen, and telling it to move-in, unpack and to immediately prepare a fresh, elegant and sophisticated 5-star meal in a new kitchen is ludicrous. And if that kitchen has no running water, has a cupboard full of tin cans and is equipped with only a microwave, then it is nigh impossible. That’s the analogy. I like to think of it another way, too. A traditional species imposes itself upon a new climate, whilst an indigenous one, flourishes in the natural conditions of its home environment. A being should not have to “force” itself to survive in a climate. If you have to live in a place where water is fed via canals, in an air-conditioned house, drive an air-conditioned car to an air-conditioned mall to buy imported, vacuum-packed vegetables or vegetables grown under poly-tunnels or reliant upon irrigation, fertilisation and extreme mechanisation, then, isn’t something wrong?

So I will go on record as saying that perhaps we should have foreseen that some of the struggling New World wine regions would have their vitis vinifera visit end in tears, as welcoming as hosts as they were. But now, even my “perfect model” of Chardonnay, back in its “home” in Chablis, is lacking its luster. Home isn’t as hospitable as it once was. Its climate, too, is changing. The Burgundian model  ever-increasingly resembles the warmer-climate models. And wine producers all over Italy and France are harking back to other grape varieties that used to be grown in their region, varieties even  more indigenous to the internationally –known varieties of today. Bordeaux used to legally grow Carmenere, for example. And with its Merlot plantings increasingly becoming unviable, many producers are upping their doses of Petit Verdot in the recipe, or adding Carmenere. Is it time to change, or move?

Linda Johnson-Bell

Article originally appeared on The Wine Lady & The Wine and Climate Change Institute (
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