The grape beyond
Are varietals really the spice of life?
by Thor Iverson
"But what grape is it?" One of the students in my introductory
wine course stared uncertainly at the dark red wine in his glass. He expressed
for the wine's rich, earthy flavors, but he was clearly dissatisfied.
"Well," I answered, "it's more complicated than that. The wine is from
Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Rhône Valley. It could be made from any
combination of up to 13 grapes."
"Yeah, but what is it, mostly?"
"It's a blend. It's not anything, `mostly,' but it could contain grenache,
syrah, mourvèdre, cinsault . . . " I said, as his eyes glazed over.
Up to now, Americans have had it easy. Wineries in the New World, deliberately
flouting European tradition, have chosen to label their wines by grape variety
rather than by appellation (place of origin). Thus, American wines are
primarily identified by a few much-repeated names: cabernet sauvignon, merlot,
chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, zinfandel, etc. The names are easy to remember and
pronounce, and have helped a lot of novice imbibers overcome their fear of
But there's a dark side to this simplification. By fostering a generation of
drinkers who identify wine by variety, wineries have made it difficult (and
occasionally impossible) to sell wine any other way. Thus, European wines
identified not by variety but by appellation (Bordeaux,
Côtes-du-Rhône, Chianti, Rioja, etc.) become more and more
confusing to the uninitiated, and even domestic wines that are made from more
than one grape are a tough sell to the masses. This is a triumph of marketing,
and possibly what some wineries have always wanted, but it bodes ill for the
So what's so bad about varietal (single-variety) wines, anyway? If they're easy
to understand, and they're good, shouldn't all wines be labeled that way? It's
a compelling argument, and it's not hard to find people who would answer "yes"
to the latter question. Even in Europe, certain regions (Alsace, Alto Adige)
and entire countries (Germany, Austria) label their wines primarily by grape
variety. And there's no denying the popularity of varietal chardonnay and
merlot, or the rising interest in wines labeled syrah or shiraz (two names for
the same grape).
But varietalism is no a guarantee of quality, or even familiarity. In Bordeaux,
for example, almost all red wines are blends of several grapes: cabernet
sauvignon blended with some merlot (or vice versa), and often a little cabernet
franc, malbec, and/or petit verdot. Such blends are not simple tradition or
historical accident, but are based on an objective assessment of each grape's
strengths and weaknesses; for example, the "hardness" of cabernet sauvignon can
be offset by the softer fruit of merlot. The same is true in
Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where the strawberry-bubblegum character of grenache
is often firmed up by the addition of powerful, rich syrah and earthy, dusty
mourvèdre. Such wines are greater than the sum of their parts, as
demonstrated by centuries of exalted reputations.
Most New World wineries aren't really going the varietal route either, although
they rarely say so. In most states, for example, it's legal to identify a wine
by a single variety even if 25 percent of the wine is something else. Thus, a
California cabernet sauvignon can contain up to 25 percent merlot, cabernet
franc, syrah, zin, or whatever the winemaker wishes to add. If blending grapes
doesn't often improve overall flavor, why are so many wineries doing it?
And ultimately, the concept of varietalism misses the lessons of wine's
history. The wines of Burgundy are prized by so many not because the reds are
pinot noir and the whites are chardonnay, but because the wines exhibit the
characteristics of each little plot of land on which they're grown. The same is
true all over the world. To say that the ultimate goal of a wine made from the
pinot noir grape is to be "Pinot Noir" is to claim that origin doesn't matter,
that the source of the grapes is secondary to the intrinsic qualities of the
grape, that the concept of terroir (the character of an agricultural product
derived from its place of origin) is unimportant. But anyone who has tasted a
Marsannay rouge (a light red from Burgundy) and a varietal pinot noir from
California's Russian River Valley side-by-side cannot possibly claim that what
dominates both wines is their "essential pinot noir character." These wines
just scream the differences in their origins.
More simply, why do wineries that identify their wines by grape variety also
list the place of origin -- Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, Santa Cruz
Mountains chardonnay, Clare Valley riesling, Clos Windsbuhl pinot gris? Because
it matters. Because all wines, even those made from the same grape, taste
different. Because the grape is only part of the picture. Because there's a lot
more to wine than the name of the fruit that was crushed to create it.
So the next time you encounter a wine made from a blend of grapes, or
identified only by place of origin, don't be afraid to give it a try, whether
you know what's in it or not. You might be surprised how much you like it.
Two blends of particular interest:
Mumm Cuvée Napa Blanc de Blancs ($18). Sparkling wines labeled "blanc de
blancs" (white from whites) in the Champagne region are 100 percent chardonnay.
But this Napa Valley sparkler throws in 30 percent pinot gris, which adds an
intense citrus-rind flavor to this sharp, yeasty bubbly.
Weinbach 1998 Pinot "Reserve" ($25). An Alsatian wine labeled "pinot" can
contain all the pinots: blanc, auxerrois, gris, and noir. This one is just
pinot auxerrois and pinot blanc, but what a killer wine it is. Thick, spicy
peach and mandarin-orange flavors make it a guaranteed crowd pleaser.
Thor Iverson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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