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Working with Vitis and other sources

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The Vitis database has a great deal of appeal for someone interested in tracking grape varieties and their synonyms both because it is massively more comprehensive than any other source I have found and because it is searchable, i.e., one can put in a name or a partial name and it will come up with some options, which can often make it easily to find the "real" information on what name means what grape. Naturally, there are some complications which make it only part of the solution that one would really want, i.e., instant, unambiguous, and definitive answers to everything!

The first problem is the data itself. While it is far, far more comprehensive, that doesn't mean that it has everything. It is maintained by a staff that is trying to do a lot more than they have resources for ... which seems typical these days ... so there is a lot of things they would like to do which just haven't gotten done yet. They are trying and I marvel at what they have accomplished, but one can find varieties not listed there that do seem to be valid grape names used somewhere and, of course, there are the problems of the data itself.

The big issues here is that we have only a soupçon of science, as in systematic DNA studies or the equivalent, and a whole lot of tradition, local nomenclature, anecdotal evidence, and the like. I.e., what the Vitis folks have done is an incredible job of assembling a huge amount of data about what is known ... but there is a lot we don't really know or where the data is sketchy or incomplete.

Among other things, this can lead to some search results which are confusing until one understands what one is seeing.

Vitis provides "Cultivar" name, "Prime" Name, Species, Berry Color, and Country of Origin. Cultivar name is the name by which the grape is known in general usage. Prime name is what grape that corresponds to. I.e., Shiraz is what the Australians (and now some other people) call Syrah. So, Shiraz is a Cultivar name for which the Prime Name is Syrah. Syrah is also a Cultivar name for which the Prime Name is Syrah. From the Wine Century Club perspective, "unique grape" corresponds to Prime Name, so for Shiraz and Syrah, there is only one unique grape, Syrah, the Prime name for both.

In a Vitis search, when the Prime name shows up blank, it means that the Cultivar name is the Prime name. I.e., searching on Syrah will have a blank in Prime name.

But, of course, things aren't quite that simple, especially since so much of the data is anecdotal. Consequently, one will run into a number of cases where one doesn't receive a simple definitive answer, including many where a definitive answer is not really possible.

For starters, all these names are simply what people call something and people are notoriously non-scientific about how they come up with such categories. So, there in addition to people having a number of different names for what is really the same thing, they also regularly give the same name to things that are different. One of my classic examples of this outside of wine is "farro", a term that can mean several different species of wheat depending on where it is used, at least two of which are in common use in Italy. The same is true of "spelt". To buy the kind of wheat one wants, one really needs the Linnaen species name to be sure what one is getting.

For this problem, i.e, the bottle says X and Vitis says A, B, or C, there really isn't any way to resolve the ambiguity except by going back to the source. The distributor might know, the vintner might know, and the grower (if different) might know ... or none of them might know. One can reach a surprising number of these people via the web these days ... although certainly not all ... and may of them are very helpful. E.g., I recently had a Portugese maker explain to me that Maria Gomes, what he called a grape in one of his wines, a name which might be either Rabigato or Fernão Pires, was in fact Fernão Pires because the call the same grape Maria Gomes in the north of Portugal and Fernão Pires in the south. Now, this is still anecdote, not science, but it is about as good as it gets. And, sometimes one can't find a contact or they don't know, so one can only guess.

Another problem which one can encounter, and which can be quite confusing until one figures out what is going on, is that sometimes Vitis knows the data is ambiguous, i.e., they know that they don't have any scientific basis on which to decide what is Prime. E.g., in one place they may have a local name A which tradition tells them is the same as some other name B, but elsewhere B may be the local name and tradition says it is the same as A. Without a scientific study, Vitis has no way to resolve this, so they take the simple expedient of showing both versions. I.e., if you search on A, it will say that it is A or B, but if you search on B, it will also say that it is B or A. I am creating a record of these when I find them which I invite everyone to add to. There is some hope that bringing these to Vitis' attention will cause more exploration, but one has to recognize that really solving the problem means DNA studies and someone has to fund those.

Another factor which may confuse some people is that, when one has two or more grapes which are known to be identical, the name used for the Prime is somewhat arbitrary ... they are identical, after all. From a WCC point of view, this doesn't really matter since any name counted as prime is what one wants to tally and it doesn't matter what it is. But, there are times when it can be disconcerting based on ones expectations.

My "favorite" example of this is Zinfandel, Primitivo, and Crljenak Kaštelanski. There was a point where people thought Primativo in Italy was the source of American Zinfandel, but the history didn't work very well and more recently it was decided that the Croatian grape Crljenak Kaštelanski was the actual ancestor of both. Now, I will confess to a certain skepticism here since essentially 100 years of no gene flow between Croatia and the USA makes me wonder if Zinfandel doesn't deserve to be recognized as its own variety, but aside from this personal passion it seems that the "Prime" should either be Zinfandel, as the far most widely grown, or Crljenak Kaštelanski, as the apparent ancestor of the other two. But, in Vitis, it is Primitivo which appears as the Prime name. As I say, it doesn't really matter among things which are identical, so one just has to accept it and move on.

One of the practical difficulties of doing searches with Vitis is that many grape names, e.g., Crljenak Kaštelanski, include characters which are outside the "Latin" base set which is the foundation of computer databases. This is a wildly complex area. E.g., there are character pairs which appear identical in Finnish and Swedish, but which sort in different places depending on the language. Not to mention, of course, that not only do many sources not preserve all the diacritical marks which are important parts of many languages ... not to mention that those of use who use English, often have no idea how to produce these marks from our keyboard.

Vitis' response to this problem is to render everything upper case and without diacritical marks ... a good solution except for the "gotcha". The "gotcha" is that there are conventions in various languages such that a letter with a diacritical mark is turned into a diphthong for computer purposes. E.g., ä might be rendered as ae. Now, this is fine for those used to these substitutions ... driven by the limitations of earlier (and still current) computer systems ... but it can be confusing to those who are not familiar with the substitutions because a search on "cäd" which one enters as "cad" will return no results, but a search onf "caed" will.

One of the really useful aspects of Vitis that helps with this is the "wildcard" character "%". Every search has an implied wildcard at the end so entering "Cabernet" will show both Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon (and 46 other variations). But, one can also insert a wildcard elsewhere in the string. E.g., if one puts in "%Sauvignon" one gets back 51 grapes which have Sauvignon somewhere in the name. This is particularly useful with a two part name in which the second part is fairly distinctive and the first part has some problematic international character. One can also put this wildcard in the middle of a name, i.e., the lack of results in the paragraph above can be cured by searching on "c%d". One may well get more than one wishes, but at least one finds it and then knows how it is spelled in the Vitis database.

And, of course, I should note that spelling is another one of those interesting variations. As you do your searches, especially if you enter partial names, you are likely to find multiple spellings of what seem to be the same name. Sometimes they map to the same grape and sometimes they don't! Spain and Italy are particularly "good" about having the same name with either a masculine or feminine ending. Once in a while this will make a smidgen of sense, e.g., the masculine ending is on a red wine grape and the feminine ending on a white wine grape, but frankly, smidgen is the best one manages and more often then not, it seems quite arbitrary.

While I have focused on Vitis here a lot, for what I think are fairly apparent reasons, there are lots of other sources. The Hawkins page mentioned above being one of the obvious ones, but ultimately one can find out a lot just by googling on the grape name. The usual googling rules apply, i.e., a grape name which is also used for a lot of other things can produce a large number of irrelevant hits, so adding the word grape to the search can sometimes help. And, of course, one has to have all of the usual cautions about any internet searches ... how many of what one finds are actually unbiased, authoritative sources. In addition to there being many public forums in which people are simply using names they have heard (sometimes from the winemaker, but then most of them are not scientists), there is also all of the usual issues with anything in the plant domain. E.g., Vendor X markets a grape under a trademark name and who knows what it is really (including the vendor). As long as the vendor can get away with claiming something distinctive, e.g., cold hardiness, people will buy the product based on the name.

I should also note that there have been a number of people in the history of grape growing who have produced a large number of hybrids. This has been very useful since there are many examples of now being able to grow grapes in climates where they could not be grown previously, not to mention many examples in which the hybrid was superior to the parents. The Vitis database has quite comprehensive listings of these grapes, typically with number and/or letter designations, but, of course, many of these have never been marketed and thus may never be in any wine that one could ever buy.

Still, they exist and you may run into one. Something like 40 years ago, my father decided he would like to grow some grapes along side the house ... in mid Illinois. Being the scientist he was, he did his research and found a source of one of the Seyve-Villard hybrids which was cold hardy enough to be expected to survive in Illinois and he planted a few. There weren't a lot of vintages before something went wrong and the vines died, but they were some pretty interesting wines. At this remove, I have no way of knowing which Seyve-Villard hybrid it was, but I do know it was one of them. By the way, searching Vitis on "Seyve-Villard" produces one hit, but searching on "Seyve%Villard" produces 155, so there are several tricks to be learned.