Varietal Versus Generic Wines.


It is unlikely that we will ever see the end of varietal wines in North America, but the question should be posed: Are varietal wines all there is to wine, and how important are they?

North Americans are hooked on varietal names so much so that grape variety names are even abbreviated i.e. Zinfandel to zin, Cabernet Sauvignon to Cab Sauv., Cabernet Franc to Cab. F, Chardonnay to chard, and Pinot Noir to Pinot. This breeds familiarity!

‘Frank Schoonmaker, and American importer and wine writer, was the first to understand and promote the use of varietal names in the 1930’s. He correctly identified the market’s desire to simplify labels, comparisons and everything else that goes along with wine buying, value concepts etc. Of course he conveniently forgot to point out that the region of origin and producer are as important, if not more, than the grape variety. There are $ 15.00 Chardonnays and there are $ 70.00 Chardonnays. When a novice is faced with both wines he/she becomes confused! Who steps in? The sales person disguised as a consultant who quickly assesses the customer’s caliber and capacity. Subsequently he tries to sell the most profitable bottle.

Up to recently, the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) insisted that a varietal wine contains 51 percent of the stated grape variety on the labels. Now this has been increased to 75 percent, meaning that 25 percent of the wine can be something else. In wine, as in any other consumable 25 percent represents a lot, and can change the taste of the remainder significantly.

Grape names, especially those relatively easy to identify and pronounce, have become popular. It is much easier to pronounce Shiraz than Semillon, or Chardonnay than Riesling, but it becomes even more interesting with place names like Puligny-Montrachet (100 percent Chardonnay) or Trittenheimer Apotheke (100 percent Riesling) Chateauneuf-du-Pape ( a blend of up to 13 grapes ) Cotes du Rhone ( blend ) etc.

French and Italian wineries vehemently complained about the abuse of their well-known generic wines like Chablis, Chianti, and Beaujolais.

In Chablis, the wine consists of 100 percent Chardonnay. Once upon a time, a California winery used to sell Chablis that did not have as much as one drop of Chardonnay in it, forgetting for a moment that the soil and weather make a lot of difference even when the same grape variety is used. The French understand the concept of terroir well, and in the long run most people may understand this important concept. The grape variety is not the sole determinant of taste, colour and texture.

Each grape variety possesses a flavour profile, which expresses the terroir. The art of the vigneron is to determine the most suitable grape variety based on terroir to express the characteristics of the soil and climate. In essence, wine is liquid geography.

The notion that Cabernet Sauvignon tastes the same regardless of vineyard is completely false and misunderstood. If you line several cabernet Sauvignons from Chile, Australia, Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Okanagan Valley, Niagara Peninsula, Bordeaux, Tuscany, Bulgaria, Romania, South Africa, New Zealand, and yes, Spain. You will be surprised how different each tastes and smells.

In Bordeaux all wines are blended according to vintage quality and vinified differently. This is the art of wine making, much like cooking, If you give the same ingredients and recipe to two cooks and ask both to follow the recipe, you can rest assured that you will end up tasting two different dishes.

Judicious blending is an art and can improve quality. R. Arrowood in Sonoma County knows it well. R. Mondavi winemakers blending judiciously, as does J. Phelps. Other wineries try to understand the concept!

When the French (actually the Portuguese were the first) determined that the location is very important, they established the appellation d’origine controlle laws, that actually that prescribe grape varieties to be planted given the characteristics of the soil and weather in the region. Fine California winemakers understand the importance of blending J. Phelps’ Insignia, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar’s Cask 23, Montebello’s Ridge Vineyards, Robert Mondavi – Rothschild’s Opus One are all blends and change according to the vintage.

It is a zero sum game. You will be surprised how much Cabernet Sauvignon goes into a Merlot varietal to give the wine some structure, and conversely how much Merlot is blended into cabernet Sauvignon to render it mellow. The same applies to Shiraz or Syrah depending on where you are.

In France, a varietal wine must contain 100 percent of the grape on the label. This may be restrictive and some wineries complain, but they are allowed to blend the wines of two or more vineyards to achieve a balance and harmony!

Chardonnay is the most popular wine in the USA and the name transcends the product or winery. Consumers ask for Chardonnay never considering where it comes from, how it was made, where it was aged, if at all, and how it was blended. So long as the wine has some aroma, a lot of “ wood “ some colour, and a lot of alcohol, people seem to be happy. Large wineries are happy to comply, and pocket huge profits!

Few, look for details like fruit, typicity of wine, flavour, texture, subtleties, texture and aftertaste.

Imagine someone seated in a r4estaurant and saying “ I will have a glass of Chardonnay” without considering where it might originate – Sonoma County, South Africa, or somewhere in between.

It is easy to “ market “ wine to the masses, especially to those who are ignorant.

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