The Boston Phoenix November 9 - 16, 2000


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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 enthusiasm 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 wine.

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 consumer.

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 wine[a]

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