John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for January 21st 2012: Grapes vs. Places: How do You Identify Wine? Discovery grapes; Top Ten Smart Buys

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

In addition to the usual Top Ten Smart Buys, this week’s report picks out the best “discovery grapes”, one of the themes for the Vintages release on January 21st. And speaking of grapes, I’ll also take a brief historical look at how we have come to identify wines by both grape and place together, the most useful way of considering wines in my view.

Grapes vs. Places: How Do You Identify Wine?

When you’re immersed in the world of wine, it’s easy to lose perspective. There’s always the risk that one forget that for most consumers, wine is a functional beverage, not a way of life. For most of wine’s 7,000 or so years of history, that’s the way it always has been. Food was prepared and wine, if there were any, was served. It likely came from yours or your neighbor’s or Uncle’s vineyards. Nobody fussed about farming practices, rootstocks, provenance of oak barrels or wild vs. cultured yeast fermentations. The only discussion might have been about where the wine came from, as some wines were of course better than others, some more highly prized and more expensive, hailing from regions that had achieved a reputation for their special qualities. But by and large, wine was simply wine, a safe beverage to accompany your meal and induce a pleasant mood.

Which Grape Variety?

grapesGrape varieties and “varietal character” are likewise recent topics of discussion. Until reliable and widespread methods of studying and classifying grape cultivars came about in the middle of the 19th century, most vignerons likely didn’t even know what was growing in their vineyards. Frequently it was a field blend of several, perhaps even dozens of different grapes growing in the same plot of land, and new vineyards were planted or old ones re-propagated with whatever local grapes had always been around. There were no vine nurseries with their catalogues of cultivars and characteristics from which to order. Certainly monastic institutions like the Cistercians and Benedictines studied grape growing and did their part to spread some of the more productive, tastier or disease-resistant grapes among their communities in Europe, and even share some winemaking secrets, but beyond that, wine was always referred to, if at all, by its origins, never by its grape composition. There was no other way. European nomenclature for wine appellations is still geographically rooted to this day.

Changing Ways of Identifying Wine

But two things conspired to change the way we identify wine. First was phylloxera’s debut in Europe in the mid-1800s, that insidious little root-sucking aphid from America that destroyed most of Europe’s vineyards within a generation. As vineyards were replanted en masse, for the first time in history, considerable attention was paid to exactly what was going to be replanted. Not all vitis vinifera (the European vine species from which almost all the world’s fine wine is made) took well to the anti-phylloxera solution of grafting onto native American vine rootstock, and thus couldn’t be replanted. Not all native varieties had been particularly successful in the first place. Attention was paid to terroir suitability, productivity and wine style, and grapes were consciously selected for re-establishing vineyards, rather than following the former habit of taking whatever happened to be growing nearby. Estimates vary as to how many indigenous grapes were lost during this period, but it’s safe to say that many hundreds of grapes disappeared from cultivation, never to return. It’s at this stage in wine’s history that specific grapes became associated with certain regions. Wine would continue to be called by it’s place of origin, but the insiders now knew which grapes were responsible for that regional profile.

The second big development in the shift towards varietal awareness occurred during the opening up of viticulture and winemaking in the New World. Huge tracks of land from Chile to Canada, Argentina to Australia were planted to grapes. But which grapes? Again, in the absence of native species of grapevines, a conscious decision had to be made as to which types of cultivars would be planted. Promising grapes were brought by European traders and immigrants; perhaps those from their native regions, perhaps those available at the port from which they set sail. In any case, the varieties’ link with their native region of cultivation had been severed. From this point on, grapes would have their own identity, beyond that of where they were grown. It would be still be several centuries before the names of grapes would become the primary form of identification and marketing of New World wines (witness “California Chablis” or South African or Australian “Port”), but the die had been cast.

How Best to Identify Wine?

So this begs the question: which is the more useful way of identifying wines, by grape composition or by region of origin? The answer, of course, is both, at least in my view. The principal purpose of labeling is to provide the consumer with some information on what the wine will taste like. There should be naming consistency, much in the way that a brand image is built up. I.e. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, once you’ve had it, conjures up a flavour profile. Chardonnay from Chablis does not taste like chardonnay from Sonoma County, so grape alone is not sufficient to provide useful and consistent information for consumers. But neither would Chablis taste like Chablis if it were made from riesling or chenin blanc or sauvignon, so region on it’s own doesn’t give the full picture.

labelThe ideal labeling scenario is thus the combination of grape(s) and place, with some production guidelines to ensure that even when multiple wineries operate within a region, there will be some consistency, even family resemblance, between wines under the same appellation name. The Old World evidently has a head start in this process, though the New World is working hard to develop its own classic regional combinations of grape and place. Given the technology and techniques of analysis available today, it will surely take less time then it did in Europe. Things are happening fast. New World regions are understandably reluctant to officially hamstring producers into growing specified varieties and using particular production techniques just yet, but everything is currently pointing in that direction. It’s just a matter of time; in fact it has already happened, unofficially, in some areas.

Within another generation or two, all a consumer will need do is taste and explore the many successful combinations of grapes and places around the world and remember which appellations they prefer. The rest is just shades of difference. Glad I could clear up the obvious. Now we can get back to fussing about those delicious little nuances.

Yours To Discover

In the spirit of both grape and place, here are some combinations worth looking for:

Place: Castilla y Léon in Northern Spain, on the border with Galicia. The Bierzo DO is situated in topographical bowl, protected by mountains on all sides. The climate is cool by Spanish standards, and soils range from slate on the hillsides to richer alluvial soils on the valley floor.
Grape: mencía. Native to northeastern Spain and Portugal (where it’s called jaen)
Style: Bright, fresh, floral and minerally reds, with soft tannins, bright natural acidity and plenty of immediate appeal.
This Wine: suave, delicate, fresh and vibrant black berry/raspberry flavours, with a notable dose of slate/schistous minerality and firm, fresh acids. Lingering finish, with barely detectable wood influence. All class and finesse.

Descendientes De J. Palacios Pétalos 2009

Place: Cafayate Valley in Northern Argentina. High elevation is the key here to maximizing the fresh aromatics of the grape.
Grape: torrontés. A crossing of muscat of Alexandria and criolla chica.
Style: as the relation to Muscat would imply, this is a highly floral, aromatic grape
This Wine: a fun wine with gorgeous aromas of orange blossom, tropical fruit, pineapple, mango and honey. The palate is medium-full, still firm, slightly salty (which enhances the fruit), with a fine, lingering finish.

Michel Torino Cuma Organic Torrontés 2010

2010 PUKLUS PINCÉSZET TOKAJI YELLOW MUSCAT Tokaj-Hegyalja, Hungary $14.95
Place: Tokaj-Hegyálja (Tokaj at the foot of the hill”), a relatively cool, humid, volcanic soil-based region in northeastern Hungary. The region is most famous for the sweet botrytis-affected wine tokaji aszú, though significant quantities of dry white wines are produced each year.
Grape: sárgamuskotály, aka yellow muscat, muscat blanc à petits grains. One of the world’s oldest grapes.
Style: extremely aromatic with intense floral aromas.
This Wine: Open and fragrant in the typical muscat style, with honey, orchard fruit and wildflowers dominating. The palate is off-dry, quite bright and crisp, with characteristic minerality emerging on the lingering finish. This punches above its price category in terms of complexity and depth.

Puklus Pincészet Tokaji Yellow Muscat 2010

2010 MORGENHOF ESTATE CHENIN BLANC WO Simonsberg-Stellenbosch $16.95
Place: Stellenbosch, South Africa. A warm growing region just inland from Cape Town, better known for red wine production.
Grape: chenin blanc. A native of the Loire Valley but widely planted in South Africa, where it was frequently used for brandy production. The country has a wealth of old chenin vineyards, whose potential for dry whites is really only now starting to be exploited wide scale.
Style: chenin is known for it’s brisk acid and aromatics of honey, lanolin, wet hay and binned apples.
This wine: A superbly flavourful and intense example of South African chenin from 40+-year-old vines with notable but well-integrated barrel influence. The palate is dense, rich, almost creamy, yet with the characteristic fresh acidity of the variety.

Morgenhof Estate Chenin Blanc 2010

Place: Vienna. The only major European capital city to have any appreciable vineyard plantings, nearly 700ha. Vineyards overlook the Danube and the city centre.
Grape: grüner veltliner. The most widely planted grape in Austria, representing nearly 1/3 of all vineyard acreage.
Style: ranges from light, crisp and frivolous to full bodied, dense and age worthy, with a characteristic turnip root, lentil and white pepper aroma.
This wine: a light, fragrant, lightly peppery and citrus-flavoured example well suited as an aperitif or sipping wine.

Weingut Zahel Riedencuvée Grüner Veltliner 2010

From the January 21st, 2012 Vintages release:

Top Ten Smart Buys
All Reviews

John S. Szabo, MS
John Szabo, Master Sommelier