Systematic Description of Vine Varieties: From its Beginnings to the Present Day

The Greek philosopher Democritus (c. 460‑c. 370 BC) describes grapevine varieties in terms of morphological observations he made, and mentions synonyms. His countryman, Theophrastus (c. 371‑c. 287 BC), successor to Aristotle, characterised some grapevine varieties in his work, “Enquiry into Plants”.

We are indebted to Columella (AD 2‑65) for the first description of grapevine varieties with regard to Iberian wine qualities.Pliny the Elder (AD 23‑79) added to the number of grapevine varieties described and improved the ampelographic system. He differentiated and described some 50 grapevine varieties (Navarro, 1932: 8). Bassermann (1907: 265 ff.) discussed the various authors’ speculation as to whether the grapevine varieties on the Rhine were of Roman origin. The Fallerno might be the Riesling; the Nomentura the Traminer; the Apiana might be the Sylvaner, and according to other authors, the Muscatel; the Albe might be the Elbling, and the Aminea, the Gutedel (Chasselat). It has also been hypothesized that vitis precox could be the Frühburgunder. To date, however, no fossil evidence to support these theories has been found.

The great tradition of the art of describing botanical diversity began on the Iberian Peninsula in the days of the Romans with Lucio Junio Moderato Columella (Cadiz). One of the most important late medieval reference works was commissioned by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, Archbishop of Toledo (1436‑1517), 3rd Grand Inquisitor and later Castilian regent after the death of the Catholic Kings. As a result of this commission, Gabriel Alonso Herrera (1470‑1539) drew up a comprehensive inventory of contemporary agriculture in his twelve‑ volume “Obra de Agricultura” [Treatise on Agriculture], which was published in 1512 and distributed free to those involved in agriculture. The second volume deals with wine growing and wine production, and describes fifteen varieties.

As wine assumed greater economic importance, viticulture began to take a greater interest in individual grapevine varieties. Unfortunately, however, records kept in Portuguese monasteries were lost to posterity because of the book burning activities during the Secularisation at the beginning of the 19th century. This accounts for the lack of documentation of grapevine variety policies from the 13th to the 17th centuries.

In the Late Renaissance in Central Europe, when the scientific description of grapevine varieties began in earnest with the German Sachs (1627‑1672), who coined the term “ampelography”, Portugal and Spain were already able to refer to their own ampelographic descriptions of primary varieties. (See Figs. 60 and 61, in table format.)


The Descrição do terreno duas léguas em roda da cidade de Lamego by Rui Fernandes in 1532 is the first known Portuguese description of grapevine varieties. This was followed in 1712 by Vicencio Alarte’s Agricultura das Vinhas, Lisbon, Oficina Real Deslandesiana. Between 1790 and 1792 various authors published Memoria sobre a Cultura das Vinhas, e Manufacturas do Vinho; Memorias da Agricultura, Part II (1); and Real Academia das Sciencias de Lisboa which provided a broad range of information on existing grapevine varieties. Many ampelographic works appeared during the 19th century before the outbreak of the American plagues, and countless works after the infestation of the vineyards.

The wines of different regions were evaluated in relation to their respective varieties. Vila Maior, in his “Practical Vineyard Handbook” (1875: 430‑515), and Ferreira Lappa in his “Agricultural Technology” (2nd edition, 1874: 92) summarized the ampelographic evidence obtained and arrived at a figure of 220 different national varieties at that time.

The Ministry of Agriculture devoted itself tirelessly to the problem, and published the results of the ampelographic study in a ministerial Boletim. Thus, in Meneses grapevine varieties catalogue (1896/1900), there are 320 references for different grape varieties listed to the end of the 18th century, with an additional 100 recorded to 1850. On an international level, the art of ampelography culminated at the end of the century with the work of Frenchmen, Viala and Valmorel, who described 5,200 varieties in their Ampélographie. In Portugal, the work of Cincinnato da Costa, Portugal Vinícola (1900) should receive particular mention. Reference should also be made to the “ampelographic studies” of the Marques de Carvalho (1903, manuscript in the Archives of the Academy of Sciences, Lisbon), who collaborated on the massive ampelography of Viala and Valmorel. At the time the Academy of Sciences did not have sufficient financial resources to publish de Carvalho’s book. (Ref. an Academy internal memorandum, according to Telles Antunes). José de Lencastre (1945) should also be mentioned here; he produced a catalogue of viticultural publications containing some 3,305 works.

In the Eighties, João Antero Araújo’s dissertation was published, and constituted the first systematic work on the varieties of the Alentejo. In parallel, a survey was carried out and a simplified inventory made under the direction of the IVV (Instituto da Vinha e do Vinho), which included photographs and an OIVcompliant description of each of the 341 different “official” varieties, covering all wine growing regions in Portugal. The EVN (Dois Portos) ampelographer, Dr. Eiras Dias, was responsible for drafting of a catalogue of synonyms. On this basis, the year 2000 saw the vine register (Portaria No 428/2000 of 17 July) being established after the number of synonyms had been reduced and many homonymous designations had been eliminated. As a result of a molecular profiling project (2005) all varieties have now been characterised and 17 synonyms identified. Hans Jörg Böhm co‑ordinated and co‑authored O Grande Livro das Castas [The Great Book of Grapevine Varieties] (2007, Chaves Ferreira), in which 70 varieties were described, using all currently known criteria, including that of spatial (geographical) relevance (IVV).


Given its particular location on the Mediterranean and the cross‑border coastline on the Gulf of Lion, the influence of foreign nations was stronger in Spain than was the case in Portugal. Likewise, the impact of migrant Vitis vinifera varieties, both in number and extent, was greater. Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, a native of Cadiz, describes viniculture according to grapevine varieties in AD 42 in his work De re rustica, which was translated into Spanish by Vicente Tinajero in 1879 under the title of Los doce Libros de Agricultura [Volume 3]. This was important to Hispanic Rome because Emperor Domitian ordered the vineyards to be uprooted in AD 92 in Gaul, as they attracted the Barbarians. It was only in the Moorish period that new records with a description of the varieties was created (by Ibn al Awam and Ibn al Baitahar).

Religious orders, particularly the Cistercians, tried to encourage viticulture by providing seeds of better performing varieties at strategic locations such as, for example, along the pilgrim trails to Santiago de Compostela and the roads to Costa Brava. The first Spaniard to document the state of viticulture in the Late Middle Ages was Gabriel Alonso Herrera (1470‑1539), who was commissioned by the Archbishop of Toledo to prepare a comprehensive work on agriculture for the benefit of farmers. The second volume in the twelve‑ volume “Obra de Agricultura” [Treatise on Agriculture], published in 1512, is devoted to viticulture.

Joseph Antonio Valcárcel (1720‑1799) compiled a ten‑ volume work entitled Tratado de Agricultura y Gobierno de la Casa de Campo, which was published at intervals between 1765 and 1795.

The reviews of grapevine varieties of the above mentioned Spanish authors are viewed as being incomprehensive and lacking uniformity in their methods of description, and fall into the category of classical ampelography.

La Colección de Variedades de Vid de ‘El Encín’. Un recorrido por la Historia de la Ampelografia by Felix Cabello et al., the book on national grapevine varieties published by Finca El Encinal in 2003, speaks of various schools of ampelography, corresponding to the various administrative districts which are still extremely decentralised. The publication includes details on the works mentioned below.

With the publication in 1882 of the Ensayo Sobre Las Variedades de la Vid Comun Que Vegetan En Andalucia by Simón de Rojas Clemente y Rubio, systematic ampelography began in earnest for the first time. Systematic ampelography had been perfected by the 20th century and is based on clear phenological criteria and morphological characteristics in much the same way as the subsequent OIV guidelines on varietal determination would establish, something which is now known as descriptive ampelography. Today, molecular ampelography provides us with the most modern and most precise method of varietal determination.

Representatives of the various regional schools followed Clemente’s initiative, including Eduardo Abela Saínz de Andino from Andalusia (1885 El libro del viticultor), Benaventura Castellet from Levante (1886, Viticultura y Enologia…), Victor Cruz Manzo de Zuñiga y Enrile, advocate of the Rioja school (1905 Memoria nual dela Estacion Enologica de Haro) and Nicolás Garcia delos Salomones (1914, Las variedades del vid propria de cada comarco…), who has worked primarily in the Central district. He served as Advisor to the Finca El Encín national grapevine variety survey. Also deserving of mention is the Tratado Práctico de Viticultura e Enología Española by Juan Marcilla Arrazola published in 1954.

Since the second half of the 20th century, there have been numerous ampelographical works, mostly with regard to regional provenance; listing them individually is beyond the scope of this book. Nevertheless, mention must be made of the official grape variety catalogue, the Variedades del Vid – registro de variedades comerciales, published in 2003 by the Ministry for Agriculture under the direction of Ing. Pedro Miguel Chomé (Forster et al.) in which 81 varieties (including table grapes and foreign varieties) have been described using the OIV guidelines, and over 100 varieties have been detailed in tabular form.


The Iberia Peninsula has a unique varietal situation. It origins stem from the Ice Age refuge of Vitis vinifera ssp. silvestris, afforded protection on the Peninsula by the sea and the mountains. From this distinct gene pool there are now over 500 different recognised varieties, which survived because of their adaptation to the warm to hot climate found between the latitudes 36° N and 41° N.

This monomorphic gene pool has been enriched by strains of Late Holocene noble Vitis vinifera varieties from the Orient and Eastern Mediterranean. The diversity of these grapevine varieties is more than evident.

In the 90s, at the Portuguese viticultural research institute at Dois Portos, Portugal, a collection of all offically recognised grapevine varieties was established in situ, under the direction of Dr. Eiras Dias. The Autonomous Region of Madrid assumed the responsibility at the El Encín regional research institute of collecting in situ all Spanish designated origin grapevine varieties, under the direction of Dr. Felix Cabello.