The contemporary wine world largely defines quality in terms of varietal typicity, the ability of a wine to taste of the grape or grapes with which it was made. For all the talk of terroir these days, we--consumers, critics, and winemakers alike--tend to focus first on grape varieties. But who decides what exactly a certain variety should taste like? What are the models or paradigms that we should use to assess typicity and hence quality?
With most grapes, the paradigms remain much as they were when the global wine revolution began fifty years ago--European classics. There are only two significant exceptions--Malbec from Mendoza in western Argentina and Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough at the tip of New Zealand’s South Island. These wines set today’s global benchmarks for wines made from those two grape varieties. They do not echo European archetypes so much as serve as stylistic models themselves. As such, they are at the forefront of a changing order in the ever-expanding field of contemporary wine.
Regardless of where the grapes are grown, virtually all fine wines are made with varieties of a single European vine species: Vitis vinifera. Hundreds of vinifera varieties, ranging from Albariño to Zinfandel, have now been planted outside their original habitats, bringing classic flavors to places previously home to innocuous wine, if wine at all.
Not all that long ago, vintners working in untried locales aimed to replicate time-honored, European models. In California during the 1960s and 1970s, for example, almost every ambitious winemaker wanted to produce wines that tasters could not differentiate from French originals. That they succeeded in doing so was demonstrated convincingly at the now famous 1976 Paris tasting, when a panel of Gallic wine professionals failed to distinguish California Chardonnay from white Burgundy and Golden State Cabernet from red Bordeaux. Though the French wines set the stylistic standards, these new wines matched them qualitatively.
This is still the case with many varieties. Premier and grand cru red Burgundy, for instance, continue to serve as the touchstone for Pinot Noir, as do Barolo and Barbaresco for anyone growing Nebbiolo, and wines from the Mosel and Rhine for a great many Riesling producers. With a handful of other grapes, however, the pendulum has swung the other way. And with Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc, both of which are native to western France, the reversal has been astonishingly complete.
Wines made from these varieties in Mendoza and Marlborough respectively have established wholly new styles that demand both attention and respect. The Argentines and Kiwis may not always be the best wines, but they have become standard bearers, the wines that both consumers and vintners look to in order to define, for good or ill, varietal identity.
The story is easy to understand with Malbec. Once grown in many regions of France and a major component in red Bordeaux, it largely fell out of favor in the second half of the twentieth century. A disastrous spring frost in 1956 led growers to plant other varieties that flower earlier and are less susceptible to mildew disease, and it today is the dominant variety only in Cahors, where it is called “Côt” and produces fairly rustic, often simple wines.
Malbec flourishes, however, in hot, dry Mendoza, the epicenter of the Argentinean wine industry. Imported there nearly 150 years ago, it led Argentina’s wine renaissance in the late twentieth century. Wines fashioned from it tasted so compelling that they quickly made a name for themselves both at home and abroad, becoming wildly popular with enthusiasts worldwide.
That popularity was due to the wines’ style, as Malbecs from Mendoza, particularly when grown at high elevations, taste quite unlike their Cahors cousins. Smooth and supple, they convey a sense of grace and sophistication enhanced by a sometimes-haunting, violet-tinged perfume that can prove extremely alluring. A number of foreign winemakers have set up shop in Argentina, and many more have planted the variety elsewhere--in California and Washington, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, even Italy and Mexico. All are trying to express the style first realized just a generation ago in Mendoza.
Sauvignon Blanc’s story is a bit more complicated. It never became unfashionable in France, being a traditional component of white Bordeaux and the dominant grape in wines from the eastern Loire Valley (such as Sancerre), and it only arrived in New Zealand in the 1970s. Almost immediately, however, the Marlborough renditions proved so riveting that they compelled notice. Unlike the French originals, which tended to mute Sauvignon’s inherently herbaceous character, they unabashedly celebrated the variety. As a result, they tasted pungently green yet exotically ripe, with a crystalline purity that simply could not be ignored.
Marlborough Sauvignon serves today as an international standard for this grape in its purest form. Some people find it too pungent, and some vintners deliberately aim to scale back the variety’s intensity, but regardless of whether one loves or hates it, no one interested in the grape can afford to discount it. Most Chilean and South African winemakers deliberately emulate it, and more and more vintners in the Loire appellations of Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre produce wines that clearly echo its overtly green but fully ripe personality.
For a long time, people could discount New World wines because, even when expertly made, those wines were fashioned on European models. No more. With Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc leading the way, the paradigms are shifting, offering compelling evidence that stylistic and qualitative benchmarks now can come from different parts of the world. The ongoing wine revolution remains a testament to globalization.