PIWI - an idea whose time has come?

Hybrid grapes used to be treated with disdain by the wine industry. Now German enthusiasm for new varieties of resistant varieties European moves against chemical treatments are helping to support their cause

PIWI wines now have their own competition
PIWI wines now have their own competition

Outside Germany, the acronym PIWI - short for Pilzwiderstandsfähig: German for ‘fungal-resistant’ is not very widely known. Effectively describing what used to be known as hybrids, it describes crossings between Vitis vinifera and other strains of Vitis that have been specifically developed – mostly in Germany and Switzerland - to need fewer treatments and potentially provide higher and more reliable yields.

The growing list of varieties with names like Regent, Sauvignac, Sauvignon Nepis, Sauvignon Rytos, Cabernet Jura, Cabernet Volos, Cabernet Noir, Cabernet Blanc, Pinotin, Epicure, LaBelle, Backa and  Rubinka, includes examples developed half a century ago and ones that are fresh off the block. The genetic mixture can be very complex, too. Hiberna, for example, is a white variety that adds Vitis labrusca, Vitis lincecumii and Vitis rupestris to Vitis vinifera.

In December 2021, the EU legalised the use of PIWIs in AOP wines across the region, but this will not actually happen until individual appellation authorities give their permission, and that will depend on acceptance of the flavour and quality of the wines they produce. So far, viticulturists have – unsurprisingly - been more enthusiastic about PIWIs than winemakers, and they have met with far greater approval in Germany, Austria and Switzerland than in France, Italy and Germany.

Doctor Uli Fischer, Professor of Oenology and Sensory Analysis at the University of Kaiserslautern, and member of the board of MundusVini, is confident that the best PIWIs, when skillfully used, can already produce white wines that can commercially compete with inexpensive examples of Sauvignon Blanc, for example. The production of similarly comparable red wines from PIWIs remains more questionable, however.

Even so, the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy aims to halve the use of chemical pesticides, so many reluctant members of the European industry are likely, at the very least, to start thinking and talking about PIWIs in the very near future.

How will consumers react to the choice between non-European wines with styles they know and like and less familiarly-styled, pesticide-free European PIWI wines?

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