June is a big month in wine. Like in any academic world the start of the summer marks the end of weeks, months and even years of work. As I sat in a room with 299 other students battling the three hour WSET diploma theory paper, I didn’t dare contemplate what the elite group of Master of Wine students had faced in their 20+ hours of examinations the previous week.
The list of questions they contemplated were released this week and as Richard Hemming explained on Jancisrobinson.com they are simple but “devilishly difficult.” Whilst I agree with him, reading through the various papers I admit to being somewhat tempted to give it a go, particularly the final paper on “contemporary issues” which somewhat tickled my fancy. This is how myself and best friend found ourselves sipping on a bottle (or two) of Saint Aubin in the French Alps recovering from our own exams attempting to formulate an answer to Theory Paper 5, Section B, Q3 of the MW exam.
“If a global disease were destroying all known grape varieties and you had the chance to preserve only two varieties – one white and one black – for humanity, which would you choose to save, and why?”
This is the perfect wino pub debate and surely it’s occurred to any wine aficionado at some point or another. We came to a consensus on the white grape almost immediately. Chardonnay. It grows happily in almost any climate. Whilst it’s an early ripening variety and prone to frost, this is easily mitigated against with modern viticultural techniques and surely if all grapes are dying out we can agree to spend some cash on smudge pots and sprinkler systems? Similarly, although it ripens earlier and accumulates sugar the flavours simply develop from citrus to tropical fruits and a little acidification in the winery can go a long way (many countries have proved this already). We can have the crisp mineral Chablis style, the moderate richness of warm climate and then the full on punch-you-in-the-face vanilla bombs of new oak and summer heat. What’s not to love?
So we’re all agreed, Chardonnay it is.
But the red grape was much trickier. Chardonnay’s partner in crime, Pinot Noir, is distinctly unsuitable to the burden of being the only viable variety. Yes, it’s capable of greatness, but it’s a finickety beast. Windy conditions? No, thank you. Rot? oh yes please. Look at it funny and frankly it’s not playing ball. Nebbiolo is the same, and Sangiovese follows suit. There is a reason these grapes make some of the most expensive wines in the world – it’s their downright difficult nature, which simply won’t do in a time of scarcity, because I’m sure we can all agree that if we’re going to grow grapes, we want wine.
Whilst I would love to see a native Italian grape take on the mantle, it was to Spain that I turned for my answer. A country with a broad range of climates, altitudes, issues with drought and yet some of the worlds longest lived wines. Could Tempranillo be the solution? I remember my diploma flashcard describing the grape, and under negatives I had boldly listed “none!!’ with the two exclamation points. Another earlier ripener that can hold it’s own in the growing season. It can literally do anything. I’ve had it as a white, a rose, a light fruity red, a ten year old complex oaked luscious wine and a fortified port set to age for decades. It’s a variety that has slowly been creeping into other countries plantings too, with elegant versions coming out of Australia. As temperatures slowly rise perhaps there is even potential for it in northern Europe.
A viable solution reached? Chardonnay and Tempranillo for everyone, forever? It works by the logic laid out, but “for humanity” could I settle for this answer? I think for humanity I’d be frantically saving cuttings of all my favourites and packing my freezer with Ruche, Arneis, Syrah and Muscat and praying to the San Giovese for the great minds of my generation to save my wines!