When grapes taste like places
Uncorked by Thor Iverson
Let's break with tradition and start the column with a few tasting notes. Trust
1997 Brancott Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough Reserve ($21.99). A
powerful grassy nose with hints of grapefruit and a powerful core of red
cherries; a tingly mouthful of asparagus crowns this New Zealand classic. It
gets a little tart
on the finish, but it's a fantastically
balanced wine to
serve with fried clams or vegetables.
1996 Grove Mill Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough ($12.99). Grassy aromas --
laced with basil, mint, apple cider, and cauliflower -- turn into a chewy lime
wave of acidity
with heavy asparagus flavors and a green-bean finish. A perfect
wine for bitter-leaf salads in vinaigrette dressings.
1996 Yarra Ridge Sauvignon Blanc Victoria ($11.99). An Australian wine
with an intriguing nose of salty pear and banana cut through with light
minerals, followed by peach, pear, and hay flavors and a tart citrus finish.
The moderately low acidity
creates a smooth, creamy feel without an intrusive overlay of oak.
1996 Domaine Henri Bourgeois Sancerre Les Bonnes Bouches ($15.99).
Classic Sancerre, with piercing citrus and clay
acidity, stony mushroom and
moss on the palate, a tight knot of red fruit flavors that suggests aging
potential, and a chalky apple-peach finish. Drink with high-acid food or raw
So that's four sauvignon blancs: two from New Zealand, one from Australia, and
one from France's Loire Valley.
Reading through the notes, you'll notice that
even though they're made from the same
grape, they have only some very general
in common. You might also notice that the two wines from New
Zealand's Marlborough region possess remarkably similar grass and asparagus
Why does sauvignon blanc from New Zealand tend to taste one way and the same
grape from Sancerre taste almost completely different? There are two possible
answers. Either the winemakers from each region have an unspoken agreement to
produce a specific style of wine, or there's something about those places that
brings out an essential and unique character in the grapes.
Some wine experts do believe the former. To them, winemaking methods are
the crucial factor in determining a wine's taste. The argument runs like
this: regional consumer preference for a particular style leads winemakers to
pursue that style. Tasters are suggestible, and if they expect a grassy taste
in wine from New Zealand, they'll find a grassy taste.
However, this doesn't account for blind
tastings, where experienced tasters,
identifying wines by aroma and flavor
alone, have a remarkable success rate at
pinpointing a wine's place of origin. Nor does it address the difficulty
winemakers in one region have in perfectly imitating the wines of another.
Despite the best efforts of some vintners, sauvignon blanc grown in California
or Australia just does not taste anything like that from Sancerre.
This brings us back to the idea of terroir, which I mentioned in
my last column:
the idea that grapes, and the wine they produce, reflect the place
where they're grown. Terroir is a sort of all-encompassing environmental
buzzword; it suggests that the soil, weather, climate, atmosphere, location,
and other intangibles of Place X produce a certain set of qualities that
distinguish its agricultural products, including wine.
It goes without saying that specific areas of New Zealand,
France have different climates. The soil is different, too: the two Marlborough
wines come from grapes grown in glacial gravel, silt, sand, and rocks. The
Yarra Ridge is grown in alluvial loam. The Bourgeois comes from the
clay-and-chalk hillsides of Sancerre.
Different climates, different soils, very different tastes. Grass and
asparagus are the classic descriptors for New Zealand sauvignon blanc (the
British prefer to label those flavors gooseberry and cat's pee -- also
accurate, but kind of unappetizing). Likewise, the sauvignon blanc-based whites
of Sancerre (and Pouilly-Fumé next door) are known for lemon-lime
flavors dominated by an unmistakable minerality.
Does this all sound like wine-critic doublespeak? Well, the people with the
most intimate connection to wine -- the winemakers themselves -- don't think
so. All but the most industrial of operations regularly pick and vinify grapes
from different soils and hillsides separately but with identical techniques, to
determine the character of the juice that results. A visit to almost any winery
will demonstrate this; casks, tanks, and barrels will be labeled according to
their location, soil type, climate, drainage, even which direction the vines
face on a hillside. Sometimes this is no more than a winemaker's private
experiment. Other times, single-location juices are
blended, based on what the
individual components can bring to a single wine. And sometimes the wines are
bottled and labeled separately.
Why would any winemaker go to all this trouble
if there wasn't something to this terroir idea?
In two weeks,
we'll take the concept down to the most basic level and give you
a chance to find out -- same producer, same grape, same
vintage, but different
vineyards -- in a side-by-side tasting that anyone can replicate at home.
Thanks to everyone who made our inaugural Uncorked wine tasting a fantastic
success. Our wine suppliers and the crew at the
Vault did an incredible job,
and we not only had a lot of fun, we truly enjoyed meeting all of you. And yes,
we're going to do it again. Watch this space for details, and
e-mail us if you
have ideas or suggestions for a future event.
Thor Iverson can be reached at email@example.com.
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