Are Piwi Grapes The Future Of Winemaking?

Fungus-resistant hybrid grapes could be the answer to environmentally sustainable winemaking.

Are Piwi Grapes The Future Of Winemaking?
The royal vineyard Königlichen Weinberg in Brandenburg, Germany, plants Regent vines
Image: Soeren Stache/picture alliance via Getty Images

Hello, Felicia! Undoubtedly, we were more than happy to see 2020 come to a close, but the year end did bring about a few silver linings. In the wine world, one such event was the official approval of new Piwi grape varietal, Felicia. 

Short for “pilzwiderstandsfähig” (German for “fungus resistant”), Piwis are special hybrid crossings between vitis vinifera, the common European grape vine, and the mainly North American vitis species. While hybrid grapes are far from new, Piwis have gained attention in recent years thanks to the increased interest in and greater push for environmentally sustainable agriculture. 

Weingut Staffelter Hof makes its Pet Nat Purple Rain from Piwi Regent grapesImage: Weingut Staffelter Hof

As native North American grape species are resistant to a variety of maladies their European counterparts are susceptible to, these hybrids carry a natural resistance to fungal diseases, reducing or even eliminating the need for spraying. This, in turn, significantly reduces the negative impact on the environment: less usage of chemical fungicides, lower emissions of carbon monoxide from tractors and a reduction in compacting of vineyard soils when tractors run over them, thus encouraging more micro-organisms in the soil. 

There is not only an environmental upside to adopting Piwis. Jörg Philipp, Asia representative of Piwi International, a global association for the promotion of fungus-resistant grape varieties, lays down its financial advantages. 

“Less usage of costly treatments and less need for driving through the vineyards (translating to savings of time, fuel and machinery input) lowers the cost of wine production in a significant way. Economically, the usage of Piwis is an important cost reducer.” 

Despite these advantages, the reception to Piwis has been muted. The wine world, unfortunately, are biased against hybrids, especially those crossed with non-vitis vinifera, as they are regarded as a low-quality alternative to vinifera. While Piwis have been around for decades, few have managed to establish themselves among conventional grape varieties.

One of the most prominent Piwi grapes is the Regent, thanks to its robust red hue, strong fruity notes and good tannin structure. A cross between Diana and chambourcin, Regent was first bred in 1967, then planted in 1985, officially recognised as a Piwi grape in 1995 and finally approved for quality wine production in 1997. 

Hybridisation of grapes occurs naturally thanks to cross-pollination; breeding Piwis is seen as giving Mother Nature a helping hand while, to a certain degree, allowing breeders to pick various desirable characteristics from parent grapes. And while it might speed up the process, the time it takes from breeding to official approval is still long-drawn. 

A Piwi-planted vineyard on the banks of Lake Walen in SwitzerlandImage: Piwi International

In the case of Felicia, it took 36 years. The Julius Kühn-Institut (JKI), a German government-backed research institute that focuses on cultivating plants to support the agricultural sector, first started crossing Sirius and Vidal blanc, Felicia’s parent grapes, in 1984 before making selections. 

“While the first goal is the resistance to certain diseases, the same importance is placed on the taste of the resulting wine. From these selections, micro productions were made to see the tasting profile of the wine and its potential for the market. 

“In 2004, Felicia received plant variety protection. And by the end of 2020, Felicia was officially approved, meaning it can be officially planted in German wine-growing regions that include it in the permitted grape varieties. So the process is long,” Philipp explains. 

To increase the visibility of Piwi grape varieties, Piwi International and its country associations in Italy and Germany actively attend exhibitions to present wines to final consumers as well as consult wineries on the varieties that are suited to their environment. It also organises the Piwi International Wine Award, says Philipp, “to give a platform to all those amazing wines made by fungus-resistant grape varieties”. 

Little by little, Piwis are enjoying growing acceptance in Europe. Besides Germany, institutes in Italy are also producing new resilient varieties, though its laws still don’t allow inclusion of these in its DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) wines, only for IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) varieties. France was the first country to allow Piwi varieties to be used in the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in 2019, but only in very small quantities for a maximum of 5 percent. Even if this increases to 15 percent in five years, it will still be a long while before a 100 percent Piwi wine is allowed under AOC classification. 

Ripening earlier than other grape varietals, Piwi Solaris is ideal for regions with extremely cold climatesImage: Uwe Anspach/picture alliance via Getty Images

Guided by philosophy rather than institutional regulations, it seems likely that the natural wine movement will be the one to propel Piwi into the mainstream. Many of the pioneers who adopted Piwi grapes are organic wine producers, Philipp observes. Winemakers like Jan Matthias Klein of Weingut Staffelter Hof in Mosel, Germany, further point out that natural wines are often made outside of appellation laws, making it far easier for natural wine producers to use Piwi grape varieties in their wines. 

From his vineyards, Klein makes both classic wines under the Mosel appellation as well as a range of natural wines. He has planted the Regent grape for over 20 years and uses it in his classic style rosé and natural Pet Nat Purple Rain. 

“The first generation Piwi Regent grapes that were planted in Mosel 20 years ago need to be sprayed maybe two to three times a year, which is still better than normal grapes, where one has to spray maybe nine to 10 times each season. Now, the newer Piwi breeds are more resistant and can get away with no sprays at all,” he shares. 

Less usage of costly treatments and less need for driving through the vineyards lowers the cost of wine production in a significant way. Economically, the usage of Piwis is an important cost reducer.”

Jörg Philipp, Piwi International

Spurred by this, Klein has undertaken what he calls his Piwi Project: nearly 2.5 hectares of vineyards planted in 2020 with just Piwi grapes, with no machines or tills used and relying on manual work and sheep power. The grapes planted include muscadis, a muscat-style grape; souvignier gris, like grauburgunder but with greater acidity; souvitage, similar to sauvignon blanc; souvignac, almost riesling-like; donau riesling, closest to riesling out of all the grapes; and satin noir, a bit heavier than pinot noir, with a smooth texture and slightly darker colour. Klein is looking to release his first Piwi Project wines in 2023. 

Alongside the natural wine scene, new wine regions could also help widen the adoption of Piwis. Philipp expounds: “Climate change is pushing borders of wine growing to higher elevations and cooler climates. As certain countries start to produce wine, they will have a closer look at which varieties are viable in their environment. Being tougher and able to survive at much lower temperatures without winter damage, Piwis often come up automatically as potential partners.” 

In Scandinavia’s wine regions, which see extreme climates, the Piwi Solaris has proven invaluable as a wine grape. Produced in 1975 at the Institute of Freiburg, Germany, Solaris is a cross between Merzling and GM 6493; it ripens earlier than almost any wine grape, making it ideal for Denmark, Norway and Sweden. 

Philipp is hopeful that consumers might also help pave the future for Piwis. 

“With consumers asking for wines with less impact on the environment and a smaller carbon footprint, wineries are starting to rethink. Wineries working with Piwis are now no longer only organic producers.” 

As long as Piwi hybrids are able to produce wines that cater to consumers’ tastebuds, it’s only a matter of time before we see a more widespread adoption of Piwi grapes for winemaking. 

This story first appeared in the March 2021 issue of A Magazine.

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