So you want to be (like) a pro ampelographer? That’s what they call someone who is a botanic specialist focussed on the grape vine. Or maybe you don’t? Maybe you just want to know how to tell one grape variety from another. Or as they would say in South Africa, one cultivar from another (bear with me, I’m coming to why South Africa). Or even one varietaly as some linguistically misguided drinkers sometimes say. (A ‘varietal’ is an adjective. ‘Variety’ is the noun.) Or you are just curious. Or have nothing better to read.
These days the most reliable way to identify a grape variety is to do a DNA test (made famous in the wine world by the Swiss botanist José Vouillamoz). But few people carry around a DNA test kit in the vineyards.
So let’s get serious.
The most important clue to identify the grape variety is the leaf. It should be a full-grown leaf to properly show the characteristics. There are several things to look for. Here are the most important:
- The size
- The colour
- The overall shape
- What kind of “fingers” and “holes” does the leaf have
- Is it flat or waffley?
- Is it smooth or hairy? (Mainly on the back of the leaf) Or perhaps a little bit “dusty”?
- What is pattern and distribution of the “nerves”
- And much more
Second thing to look at is of course the grape bunches, although that is difficult unless it is close to harvest time. Here are some of the important things:
- Well, first is of course the colour…
- The size of the bunch
- The size of the berries
- The shape of the bunch. Is it conical? Cylindric? With two parts, a big main part and a small “ear” to the side?
- Tight or wide spread?
- Where on the vine is it attached?
- The hue of the colour
- Thickness of the skin
- And many more
There are other clues too:
- How do the branches grow?
- Are they rigid and self-supporting or tend to fall down on the ground?
- The colour of the wood and bark. Patterns.
- Look of the buds
- And much more
To take two examples: Merlot typically has big leaves with a waffley structure and very big grape bunches. Pinot noir typically has small very tightly knit cylindrical or pine-cone shaped bunches.
At the Simonsig winery in Stellenbosch in South Africa they have a grape conservatory with many different grape varieties side by side. The pictures below show you some of this although in reality it is not always easy to tell one variety from another. But even from these simple pictures it is evident that the look of the leaves and bunches does vary significantly from one variety to another.
See all the examples below from Simonsig (plus a few extras).
You might also be interested in our article series on grape varieties. Read some of the articles here:
If you want to get a closer look and better understanding of this you should join us one one of BKWines wine tours, which will give you much more information and a better understanding of what happens in the vineyards.
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