Have you heard the one about the French scientists who sent Australia the wrong grapes?

By Mike Pomranz
May 08, 2020
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Be honest: If I handed you a bunch of Merlot grapes and a bunch of Malbec grapes, could you tell the difference? It’s fine. There’s wine appreciation and then there’s botany—and one’s far more fun casually study up on than the other. Turns out, winemakers aren’t even beyond getting mixed up. DNA testing has revealed that Australian wine producers have accidentally been mislabeling a wine variety for over four decades.

According to Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News, the confusion began in 1979: That year, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO)—Australia’s national science agency—imported Petit Manseng grapes from the French National Institute for Agricultural Research… or so they thought. But even the scientists got it wrong. Recent DNA testing by a French ampelographer uncovered that, for all these years, the variety was actually Gros Manseng. Oh, the humanity.

Petit manseng grapes.
| Credit: Horacio Villalobos / Contributor/Getty Images

“Unbeknownst to us, we have distributed something we called Petit Manseng over a number of years,” CSIRO's Ian Dry told ABC News. “At the time there were no really objective measures which would allow us to identify them—you would need to be a real expert in the area of ampelography.” (Dry didn’t comment on why Australia’s national science agency didn’t have this sort of expert on hand to review the grapes in the first place; maybe they just trusted the French a bit too much?)

Despite any potential embarrassment, the actual impact on the Australian wine industry is minimal. Petit Manseng (or whatever it calls itself!) wasn’t even listed in the National Vintage Report 2019 from Wine Australia—the country’s official wine board—meaning it makes up less than 1 percent of the country’s white wine production. In fact, ABC News suggests that only an estimated 15 to 20 vineyards in the entire country grow the grape, and Wine Australia says they have already contacted every producer known to have exported wines labeled with the variety over the past five years.

For all of these reasons, Wine Australia says they aren’t taking any action or recalling these wines. "We will allow producers to sell the stock they currently have as Petit Manseng," Rachel Triggs, the group’s general counsel, was quoted as saying. “But in the future vintages […] they will be required to change their labels.”

Meanwhile, CSIRO also chimed in to let people know that, in general, after testing about 1,500 varietals, most of their grapes are what they claim to be. “There's a few more obscure varieties that we need to double check,” Dry told ABC News. “The major varieties are completely safe.” I’ll toast a Shiraz to that!