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Our Varietal Obsession
By Paul Lukacs
Oct 28, 2014
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Wine drinkers have become obsessed with grape varieties.  Most consumers identify and ultimately select wines primarily on the basis of varietal identity.  And while the world is awash in literally thousands of different varieties, only a small handful produce consistently first-rate wines in an array of different locales.  Sometimes irresponsibly derided as “international,” these are the world’s top varieties, the grapes that make a disproportionately large number of the world’s finest wines. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the preoccupation with grape varieties is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Before the 1960s, even the most devoted connoisseurs paid little attention to the type of grapes that went into the wines they loved.  The British wine expert, Cyrus Redding, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, hardly ever mentions them, and George Saintsbury, whose Notes on a Cellarbook has become something of a cult classic, never acknowledges the existence of different grape varieties.  Instead, both Redding and Saintsbury focus on the identity of the wines themselves.  In their view, Vougeot should taste like Vougeot, and Montrachet like Montrachet.  That these wines are made with Pinot Noir and and Chardonnay is irrelevant.

Things changed, and changed very rapidly, when vintners working outside of regions where grapes like these long had been cultivated began to make their own wines with those same varieties.  This happened most notably in New World regions like northern California and South Australia, but it soon occurred in the Old World as well--in Tuscany, for example, and in France’s Languedoc.

These new wines were usually identified on their labels, and even more importantly in the minds of the men and women responsible for them, by grape.  Thus in the famed Paris tasting of 1976, a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon bested a number of red wines from Bordeaux, none of which were identified by anyone in terms of grape or grapes.  Suddenly grape variety became the fashionable way to think about wine--so much so that consumers began to ask about the varietal composition of red Bordeaux, white Burgundy, and other time-honored classics.

There are about sixty different species of grape vines growing across the world today.  Most yield undistinguished if not unpleasant wines, with only one species, vinifera, being responsible for what people today consider to be fine wine (as opposed to often fortified plonk, the sort of wine drunk from a bottle hidden in a brown paper bag).  That one species, however, has between 5,000 and 10,000 different varieties, many pedestrian in quality but a surprisingly large number capable of producing distinctive-tasting wines.

Most of these varieties are indigenous to particular locales and are cultivated nowhere else.  They remain local in every sense of the word.  These days, however, others are being cultivated far from home--Tempranillo in Australia, for example, or Fiano in Texas. 

For the most part, the marketplace has barely begun to assess wines like these.  That a winemaker (in this case Christian Roguenant at Zocker) is producing a delicious Grüner Veltliner in California does not mean that the variety has found a stable home there.  Its native Austrian abode remains secure.  So too with a growing group of varieties.  Adventurous vintners across the glove are experimenting these days with Albariño, Dolcetto, Marsanne, Mourvèdre, Nebiollo, Verdejo, and others, but only time will tell whether their experiments prove transformative.  No one yet knows if wine drinkers ever will consider these varieties to be more than local specialties.  

To date, only six grape varieties have achieved global renown.  Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Syrah are the three reds; Chardonnay, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc the three whites.  What makes these six so special?  Not that they necessarily produce the best wines, but that they can produce excellent wines in different locales and in different styles.  They are international in that their excellence is not confined to a single place, but they also can be site-specific, yielding wines that taste distinctive as well as good.

What does wine made with Cabernet Sauvignon (or its cousin, Merlot) taste like?  Does it resemble dark berry and currant fruit with secondary scents of cedar, cigar box, or pencil shavings?  Or is its flavor profile more akin to black cherries and plums, with elements resembling sweet spice or pipe tobacco?  What about Chardonnay--rich and buttery or taut and firm?  Should Pinot Noir be sweet or savory, Riesling mineral-rich or tasting primarily of peaches and other summer fruits?  The questions go on and on, the point being that internationalization in wine does not come from the grapes themselves.  Instead, it is a function of winemaking vision and style.

The global presence of the big six grape varieties is undoubtedly a good thing, as they have replaced inferior varieties in many vineyards and so helped raise quality worldwide.  Moreover, when considered by themselves, they have done nothing to homogenize wine production, as each is capable of yielding wines in a wide range of styles. 

What may not be a good thing, however, is the continuing consumer obsession with these grape varieties.  When someone asks for a glass or bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, what exactly is it that he or she wants?  A refreshing, grassy wine?  A richer, oak-influenced one?  A wine that tastes of grapefruit and other citrus fruits?  Or a wine that tastes more of figs and melons?  Identifying the grape variety does nothing to answer these questions.

The varietal identity of any wine is only part of its story.  The rest involves where the grapes were grown and what the winemaker chose to do (and not do) with them.  And knowing just a third of any story is a recipe for frustration and disappointment. 

People embraced grape varieties as a way of thinking about wine when the world of fine wine expanded a generation ago to include places far removed from the different varieties’ time-honored homes.  That expansion, however, is now history.  It’s time for consumers and vintners alike to move on, and so to begin to think about wine in a new but paradoxically old way.  What should a particular wine, no matter which grape variety or varieties went into it, taste like?  As Cyrus Redding and George Saintsbury well knew, it should above all taste of itself.