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Varietal Madness Today
By Paul Lukacs
May 26, 2020
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Varietal identification--the classification of wines by grape--has been one of the most important developments in the world of wine over the past half-century.  It has had definite benefits.  But it also has brought problems, and it seems clear that the problems today outweigh the advantages of yesterday.  For both producers and consumers, an obsessive attention to grape varieties has become a sort of madness.

Wine growers have recognized the differences between grape varieties for centuries if not millennia, but hardly any consumers even knew the various names of grapes until the 1960s.  That is when a new generation of visionary winemakers, most working outside traditional European regions, began to label their wines with such names.  These vintners often were self-consciously emulating what then were regarded as the world’s finest wines--classified growth red Bordeaux and white Côte d’Or Burgundy.  Since they could not import those terroirs, they latched onto the idea of using the same grape varieties (and in many cases, the same viticultural techniques) as their French counterparts.

This was especially true in California, which by and large lacked any recent history of quality wine production due to the pernicious effects of National Prohibition.  (Contrast what happened in the Golden State with the situation in Australia, where winemakers were just as enthralled by the famed French wines but often used different grapes--Semillon for their whites and Shiraz for their reds.)  Robert Mondavi, whose father owned the old Charles Krug winery in the Napa Valley, is the best-known example.  He struck out on his own following a trip to France where he was bowled over by both the quality and the character of the wines he sampled.  When he opened his new eponymous winery in 1966, his confessed goal was to produce wines that could hold their own with France’s finest.

Mondavi employed a revealing strategy when he tried to sell these wines.  He would put the bottles in brown paper bags and pour them alongside a similarly disguised bottle of French wine--his Reserve Cabernet next to Château Lafite-Rothschild, or his Reserve Chardonnay beside a grand cru Corton Charlemagne.  The highest compliment that buyers could pay him came when they could not tell which wine was which, his aim being to make wines that tasted like red Bordeaux and white Burgundy.

It never occurred to Mondavi--and he was far from alone in this--to make a wine that tasted instead of Cabernet or Chardonnay.  After all, no one knew what Cabernet, Chardonnay, or any other grape tasted like when separated from both winemaking and terroir.  Identifying wine by grape variety was simply a new way of marketing it, conceived at first as a method of distinguishing ostensibly fine wine from cheap generic, or as it was called then, “jug” wine.

That Mondavi wanted to make that distinction clear to consumers is made evident by the fact that he financed the sale of his varietally-labeled wines with the sale of his jug wines, then called “Bob’s Red” and “Bob’s White.”  These were blends, made primarily with purchased grapes, and he sold a great deal of them.  If they have been forgotten today, that’s because they no longer exist, having been replaced by equally cheap but now varietally-labeled wines--$5.00 bottles of Cabernet, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and more.  

That’s the madness.  Good wine, especially at lower price points, need not be made with single grape varieties.  In fact, the use of single varieties, or even predominant varieties, can often result in manifestly disappointing wines.  Bob’s Red and White, like Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy or Almaden’s Chablis (all very popular jug wines in the 1960s and 1970s), were more interesting and tastier than many if not most of today’s comparably priced varietally-labeled wines.  Why?  Because they were made with grapes that were more suitable to the locales in which they grew--Colombard, for example, or Alicante Bouschet. 

It’s simple economics.  To make a wine that you can sell at a low price, you need to grow the vines in a place where land values are relatively low--the searingly hot California Central Valley rather than Napa, for instance, or Australia’s arid Riverland rather than the Barossa.  You also need to harvest the maximum number of grape bunches per vine.  And the supposedly noblest grapes tend not to perform so well when forced to produce a great volume of fruit in such regions.

But that’s not all of the madness.  By focusing so exclusively on grape varieties, a great many winemakers have forgotten than the choice of grape is but one of myriad factors that go into wine production.  Robert Mondavi’s generation wanted to make wines that tasted like the best wines in the world.  In the process, they expanded the category of “the best.”  But far too many of today’s winemakers want simply to make Cabernet or Pinot Noir or whatever the trendy variety of the moment may be.  They, however, know no more about the character of a grape variety than Mondavi did fifty years ago.  And that’s because, a variety, when considered as a wine, has essentially no character at all.

What, for example, is Chardonnay’s character?  Yes, it has certain noticeable traits in a vineyard--leaves of a certain shape, clusters of a certain size, skin of a relative thickness, and the like.  But for consumers, the name Chardonnay identifies wines on a restaurant list or store shelf.  What is their character?  Are they taut and tight, as in Chablis?  Do they taste of crisp apples, of citrus, of tropical fruit?  Do they sport high or low levels of acidity?  Are they buttery, juicy, lush?  Or are they lean and taut?  Are they full-bodied, or light and ethereal?   Of course, the answer is that Chardonnay, as a wine named after a grape, is all of these things and none of them.  The same goes for any varietal name.  (What, for heaven’s sake, is the character of wines labeled as Pinot Noir these days?)  Such names are a largely meaningless form of identification.
But they also are how we all identify wines these days.  Considered historically, varietal identification represents a necessary development in the global increase in wine quality.  But with chemically flawed wine largely a thing of the past, it is a development that is no longer needed.  That’s why our continued devotion to it seems madness.