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Wine grape biodiversity and the curious case of the Uhudler

(c) Kim Aigner

Save the Uhudler!

Life is hard for Uhudler, a traditional wine from southern Burgenland: National and European laws are currently forbidding its sale. At Austrian level, the so-called “fruit wine”-solution has eased producers a little bit, but a more sustainable and fair European answer to the problem still needs to be found. The unfounded discrimination of highly resistant wine grape varieties needs to come to an end!

(c) Arche Naoh Schiltern

What is Uhudler?

The term “Uhudler” designates certain wines which are made out of direct producer wine varieties. Direct producers are non-refined vines which “directly” carry the grapes from the rootstock. Uhudler can be made out of several wine grape varieties such as Othello, Noah, Elvira, Isabella or Concord. The taste of Uhudler reminds of strawberries and currants and is often designated as having the “Fox tone”. In Austria, Uhudler vines are cultivated mostly in Southern Burgenland. Its roots are to be found in Northern America.

In 19th century, as European viticulture was invaded by the vermin phylloxera (Viteus vitifoliae), North American vines (Vitis labrusca, Vitis riparia,…) were brought to Europe due to their resistance to phylloxera, but also to mildew. These local American varieties had developed resistances against the permanent threat. In contrast, the European vines (Vitis vinifera) were hit hard as whole vineyards were destroyed in Europe.

During the 20th century, it became a common strategy to use breeds based on North American species as rootstock to which European Vitis vinifera varieties were grafted. Today, nearly the whole European viticulture has American roots. Another strategy has been to breed new wine grape varieties using the resistance traits carried by American varieties, developing the so-called hybrids. At the same time, American direct producer wine varieties had their own successes in Europe. These varieties have been, and still are, directly grown in several European countries, getting the name “direct producers”. One example is Uhudler.

 
 

Direct producer varieties – where to find them in Europe

At the beginning of the 20th century, direct producers were much more spread all over Europe. Today, there most certainly are considerable stocks on the Balkans. ARCHE NOAH knows of stocks of and traditions linked to direct producers in the following EU member states : France (Jacquez, Herbemont, Othello, Noah, Clinton, Isabelle), Slovenia (Šmarnica or Jurka), Hungary (Othello), Northern Italy (Fragolino, Clinto), Portugal and the Azores (Morangueiro, Cheiro) as well as Spain (Vino Barrantes).  In Austria, they are to be found in Southern Burgenland and Styria.

 
 
European Union  2013 – Source EP

The politics of Uhudler

Today, the planting of some of the direct producer wine varieties for the purpose of wine production is forbidden. Beginning mostly in the 1930s, national and European laws have adopted a dramatically restrictive and unfairly discriminatory approach to certain direct producers and to hybrids.

Since the express prohibition of six wine grape varieties, namely Noah, Othello, Isabelle, Jacquez, Clinton and Herbemont, in 1999, direct producers are increasingly forced out of the market.

The ARCHE NOAH seed policy team has tried to bring some light onto the historical background of the bans of Uhudler. We found out that the consumption of Uhudler is not harmful to health, though this was and still is repeatedly wrongly asserted, nor are there any other good reasons for its ban. On the contrary, there is big potential in these varieties as they have natural resistances against pests. Read the summary of our report on the emergence of the bans on direct producer wine varieties in Austria, France, Germany, Portugal and Spain.

In Austria, a Wine Law Amendment was resolved in May 2016. Thus, Uhudler produced from varieties not approved for wine production by EU law (Noah, Othello, Isabelle, Jacquez, Clinton and Herbemont) can be declared and sold as “fruit wine”. This solution enables the sale of Uhudler, but it is highly controversial. It is a temporary solution for Austria, but in the long term the discriminating prohibitions on the European level need to be eliminated. This is the big goal of ARCHE NOAH’s work and we continue to confront the politicians with the versatility and delicacy of Uhudler, as we did in May 2016 in the EU parliament by means of an “illegal wine tasting” with Uhudler and direct producers from France and Italy.

In regard to the conservation of crop diversity, the Uhudler is an important plant genetic resource. ARCHE NOAH stands up for the legal existence of all plant varieties in Europe. We are working on the Austrian as well as European levels to achieve this goal.