What Are Indigenous Grape Varieties?

Harry Lambourne
15th September 2023

Indigenous Grape Varieties are, simply put, grape varieties which are native to the land in which they are grown. For example, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are both believed to be native to Burgundy.

So, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Burgundy could be considered wine grown from indigenous grape varieties. However, these varieties are grown across the world, so it may be that they are not the best examples to use.

Burgundy Wine Region - Côte d'Or
Côte d’Or, Burgundy – Native Home For Chardonnay & Pinot Noir

Instead, we should look for niche varieties which are only almost exclusively grown in a particular wine region.

Whether you take the broad or narrow definition of indigenous grape varieties, it is certainly an interesting topic to consider. While the same grape variety can find success across the globe, some believe that it is best when it’s at home.

Indigenous grape varieties are native to the climate, the soil and the general terroir. You can make the case that they would thrive in conditions which they began in. They’re at their best when they are in their ‘original terroir’.

Either way, we will take a look into what indigenous grape varieties are, some examples of them and discuss the link to the concept of terroir. We’ll also leave you with a few suggestions for wines from indigenous grape varieties.

Let’s start learning!

What Are Indigenous Grape Varieties?

As we mentioned, if a grape variety is indigenous to a region then it is native to, or at least has a long established history within, a particular region. The key point is that they grow within this region, without being specifically cultivated by humans.

Without humans, you’d still find Grillo in Sicily, but you likely wouldn’t have ever found Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon. This means that, within Sicily, Grillo is an indigenous grape variety. However, neither Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon are.

Grillo Grape Sicily | Indigenous Grape Varieties
Grillo Grapes – Indigenous To Sicily

This does also mean that many new-world wine-making nations have very little to no indigenous grape varieties. For example Malbec is the star of Argentina, but its roots are in Bordeaux. Chenin Blanc hails from the Loire Valley, but South Africa has adopted it as their star grape variety.

Often, you’ll find what are dubbed as ‘International Varieties’ dominating the vineyard plantings in New World winemaking nations. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Grenache, Merlot, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah are the most well known of these.

This is simply because viticulture, (in an established sense), was introduced far later into many of these countries. Europe had been growing and producing wine for the best part of a millennium by the time settlers had begun planting vines in great numbers in New Zealand, Australia or a number of other new-world wine nations.

Examples of Indigenous Grape Varieties

We’ve already mentioned a few native regions of certain grape varieties, such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Grillo. However, the list goes on. Some are more famous, such as Nebbiolo in Piedmont, (which is used in the production of Barolo), or Montepulciano in Abruzzo.

These world-famous red wines are closely associated with their homeland. Nebbiolo is particularly linked to Piedmont, with very little plantings being found in other places in the world.

Nebbiolo Grapes - Used in Barolo Wine Production
Nebbiolo Grapes – Indigenous To Piedmont

Beyond this, you can get the more regionally famous Godello from Galicia, or Xarel·lo in Catalonia. Both these are well known in Spain, the latter is primarily known for its use in Cava production. However, finding single varietal still wine offerings of these in England may be far less common. 

This speaks to the fun part of wines made from indigenous grape varieties. While it is true that Barolo is a wine made from indigenous grape varieties, there are a huge number of examples which are far less well known. They’ll occupy tiny plantings in pockets of lesser known wine regions.

Think of Bical from Barriada in Portugal, Aglianico from Taurasi in Italy, or Trepat from Conca de Barbera in Spain. We bet you haven’t tried all of those, have you? It’s always great to expand your wine horizons and looking for indigenous grape varieties can be a good way to do so.

If you’re interested, be sure to take a look at some of the wines made from indigenous grape varieties which we carry at Savage Vines. You can browse them all here, but we’ve left some of our favourites just below.

Terroir & Indigenous Grape Varieties

Let’s begin this section by defining the concept of terroir. Broadly speaking, it is the environmental factors and human practices which bring about the end product of a specific good. This concept is perhaps most famously linked to wine, but it can be attributed to many other products. For example, tea, beer, tequila, tobacco or even cannabis, (where legal of course).

The term was first fleshed out by fastidious monks in Burgundy, who performed deep analysis on small sections of all the vineyards in the region. The express goal was to determine which areas produced the best wines. This is why the appellations in Burgundy can be so small and spread out, with individual vitners only owning a few vines in a vineyard area.

The surrounding terroir directly informs both the quality and expression of the wine that is grown in the area. But, how does this link to the idea of indigenous grape varieties?

Well, many argue that through minimising human intervention you get a truer expression of terroir. This is why many are opting for organic wines, or natural and low intervention wines. These winemakers let the grapes grow in a more natural way and through doing so the wines are seen as a truer reflection of the area in which they are grown. You go from grape to glass, without any interference.

So, with indigenous grape varieties, you have a grape which is native and perfectly suited to that environment. When it is then turned into a wine through low-intervention practices, you can argue that you are getting a wine which is truly reflective of the terroir. The natural environment has produced a wine from a grape which is native to the region. What could be better?

Obviously it’s not that simple and grapes can thrive in regions to which they are not native. Yet, we encourage you to pick up a wine grown by grapes native to that region, then compare it to one from another part of the world. See if you think it performs best on home turf. Can a Mexican Nebbiolo ever match Piedmont? Maybe you think Old Vine Stellenbosch Chenin Blanc surpasses anything from the Loire Valley. It’s time to start sipping and see for yourself!

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