Themed Week Resources: PIWIs – The Grape Varieties of the Future?


“Maréchal Foch”, “Regent”, “Solaris”: Perhaps you’ve heard of them or maybe even given them a try? These unusual names denote fungus-resistant grape varieties, affectionately nicknamed PIWIs. They are more abundant than many people would think and have many advantages over traditional grape varieties. Despite this they remain largely unknown on the market.

The development of new grape varieties

Vine growing: A long-winded process. First the grower must select the best seedling, propagate it, keep a watchful eye on it over a number of years and then put the wines through taste trials. It then takes at least the same amount of time until the new grape variety is officially admitted for cultivation. 30 or 35 years can easily pass by in the process! So why do growers do it? In the past they attempted to develop high-yield varieties or those that produced delicious wines. Quick-maturing varieties, too, have always been attractive for vintners because they reduce the risk of harvest losses brought about by poor weather. Well-known and successful varieties include the Müller-Thurgau (1882, a Riesling/Madeleine Royale hybrid), Scheurebe (1916, a Riesling/Buketttraube hybrid) and Dornfelder (1955, a Helfensteiner/Heroldrebe hybrid). The grapevine is a versatile plant that readily and frequently produces mutations, so it makes sense to capitalize on this particular trait. The field is vast: Around 16,000 varieties of Vitis vinifera are known to exist today. If you’d like to sample one or more of these varieties, or arrange a professional tasting session, you’ll have the opportunity to do just that in the SIMEI Sensory Bar at this year’s drinktec in Munich, where wine connoisseurs and wine lovers come together to discover new varieties.

PIWIs: Eco-friendly viticulture without chemicals

Arguably the most important branch of the modern varieties includes cultivars that are resistant to plant diseases such as downy and powdery mildew. This helps keep pesticide treatments to a minimum. Not only is this advantageous for the organic wine grower, who makes a considerable cost saving, it also sounds appealing to non-organic wine growers and the environmentally aware consumer, to which Matthias Wolf from the association PIWI International adds: “Viticulture without chemicals and without soil impact, because you’re saving yourself many a tractor ride along rows of grapevines, is no dream: PIWI is possible.” Over 350 member vintners in 17 countries have opted in to eco-friendly viticulture without chemicals.

SIMEI, organized by the Unione Italiana VINI (UIV), will be part of drinktec for the first time in 2017, making the perfect addition to the viticulture product portfolio in two additional halls. As such, SIMEI@drinktec will be the industry meeting point for vintners and wine producers. Find out more in this drinktec blog post.

PIWIs versus established wines – New varieties are having a hard time

The question is whether wine lovers will accept these new fungus-resistant varieties, affectionately nicknamed PIWIs by experts. That old saying about the farmer not eating what he doesn’t know applies in this case also. In Germany’s two biggest growing regions, Rheinhessen and the Palatinate, PIWIs make up just to two to three percent of the vineyards. Up to now, few have made the leap and established themselves among the conventional grape varieties. The red Regent has won many a fan thanks to its rich color and good tannin structure, and is often supplied as a single-origin. The white Cabernet Blanc was created by Swiss grower Valentin Blattner in the Palatinate by crossing the red Cabernet Sauvignon with several resistant partners. It is similar in taste to the Sauvignon Blanc, and has the potential to be just as trendy a wine—all thanks to its distinctive aroma. Johanniter, Solaris, and Helios, cultivated in the seventies at the State Institute of Viticulture in Freiburg, Germany, produce pleasantly fruity, well-balanced wines and are also suitable for making dessert wines. They metabolize the sun’s rays extremely well and reach higher must weights than their reference variety, the Riesling. Their acidity levels are also somewhat lower. This appeals to the taste buds of consumers who prefer a fruity, full-bodied wine that is not too acidic.

Award-winning wines

Are the PIWIs keeping up with the established grape varieties? The specially introduced International PIWI Wine Award is now in its seventh year—proof that even PIWI wines can achieve gold medals! Just consider that 30 years ago no one would have thought to look for a Sauvignon Blanc or a Merlot in Germany’s growing regions, then you’ll know that change is always possible. It’s all just a matter of time. What’s 35 years to the wine industry?

Dr. Rolf Klein

The freelance wine journalist was chief editor of the Weinwelt magazine until 2006. He writes about current trends in the world of wines and wine growers.