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Ignore the purists who sneer – manmade grape varieties can be wonderful

The early hybrids were nasty or dull, but scientists kept plugging away and the wines have greatly improved.

By Nina Caplan

It was the Gamaret that settled the matter. It was earthy yet fruity, with enough acidity to cut through my dinner, which happened to be a terrific dish of grilled veal kidneys in mustard sauce, perfectly cooked. It had no discernible wood – never drink oaky wines with offal, or both food and wine will taste like licking a car door – and it was textured and moreish. It also happened to be fundamentally unnatural.

In the 19th century, grape varieties were crossed like animal breeds and for much the same reasons: we are a know-it-all species, convinced we can do better than nature. Resistance to disease or cold, an ability to ripen early or yield bountifully, was bred in, either by combining two types of the traditional wine species, Vitis vinifera, or by crossing one with others that were less highly regarded but had other advantages.

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So keen were these scientists to create indomitable vines that they lost sight of the plant’s ultimate purpose: to produce something that tastes good. The vine has always been at least as vulnerable to ideology as it is to mildew or frost.

The early hybrids were nasty or dull, but the scientists kept plugging away, drawing courage from adversity, rather as a vine gains strength by sinking its roots deep into inhospitable soil. And the wines improved. My Gamaret, a cross between Gamay, the red grape of Beaujolais, and Reichensteiner, itself a cross of Madeleine Angevine and Müller-Thurgau, the latter a notoriously boring cross between… but look, this is becoming as dull as someone else’s family tree. My point is that each generation of crosses was better than the one before.

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I drank the Gamaret – which was made by Isabelle Ançay of the Cave de Bonheur, just down the road from the restaurant – in Switzerland in June. Two months previously I had tasted a delicious white in Italy’s Veneto region made largely from Manzoni Bianco. This is one of several crosses created by Luigi Manzoni in the middle of the last century, and the Sorelle Bronca Delico in which I tried it was so good I was tempted to abandon my dinner to drive the 12km to the winery to find out more.

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In between these two bottles, I’d attended a tasting of Zweigelt, a red grape from Austria that, when made by someone as talented as Markus Iro, is an elegant blend of blackcurrant and spice that was created by Fritz Zweigelt in 1922 at Klosterneuburg, the other side of Vienna. These grapes, too, are local, and there’s an argument that they can be just as redolent of terroir as the trendiest indigenous variety rescued from ignominy by people whose obsessions are simply a little different.

And here comes the matter that needed settling, before I tried that Gamaret. The wine world hums, currently, with talk of natural wine. Only low intervention – or, Bacchus preserve us, no intervention – will do for the people who claim that any other wine is inauthentic, tasteless and headache-inducing.

I have never agreed with this, not because I like headaches but because I distrust all sweeping statements about this most complex and fascinating of drinks. Some natural wine is great, some is awful and should be thrown directly down the sink, but as soon as you decide to pick those grapes rather than leave them for the wasps, you are intervening. We are humans, and intervention is what we do.

I’ve never found a Müller-Thurgau I could love, but that Manzoni delighted me, while the best of the Zweigelts at that lunch went so beautifully withroast duck that I wanted to get on the next plane to Austria. Not everyone enjoys eating kidneys, but those who do should consider Gamaret as an accompaniment. Manmade grape varieties can be wonderful, and the creed that refuses to acknowledge that is shrinking wine’s possibilities rather than expanding them, and that, as far as I am concerned, is that.

[See also: My father’s love of wine was a gift he gave me when I was ten]

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This article appears in the 06 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Last Days of Boris Johnson