By Charles B. Rubinstein
“The Grape that can with Logic absolute
The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute.”
“The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám,” trans. by Edward FitzGerald
Every once in a while it’s time to get back to fundamentals, and wine is no exception.
Nothing is more basic to wine than grapes. According to Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, authors of the definitive book on the subject, “Wine Grapes” (Ecco $112.99), there are 1,368 wine varieties currently making wine commercially. That’s a lot to study, but there is a simple everyday aspect about grapes that is worth discussing because it comes up in discussions about wine and when shopping for wine. Grape names are not always explicitly noted on wine labels.
New World wines are usually labeled with the name of the grape. Old World wines are usually labeled with the name of the place. There is a good reason for this practice. In European wine regions they have been making the same wine from the same grapes in the same place for hundreds of years and perhaps a thousand years. They learned a long time ago what grape or grapes do best in the region. As a result the wines are just labeled with the name of the producer or estate and perhaps the name of the vineyard.
In this country we are still experimenting with what grapes do best in what locations so we label our wines with the name of the producer and the name of the grape. How the labeling practice works in France is worth looking at as a learning experience.
Consider Burgundy first. At the risk of mentioning what is well known to some readers, almost all red Burgundy is made solely from pinot noir. However, pinot noir never appears on the label except for the inexpensive regional wines. The best wines are labeled with the name of the village or the vineyard that is the source of the grape.
The same is true for almost all white Burgundy. All white Burgundy is made from chardonnay, but the name of the grape does not appear on the label.
Here’s a question for the expert reader: What other red grape and white grape is used to make wine in Burgundy? The red grape is gamay, and the white is aligoté. Gamay and pinot noir are blended in the Passe-Tout-Grains appellation in Burgundy, but it is rarely known elsewhere. Beaujolais, which is made from gamay, is formally part of Burgundy but usually not included in the “wines of Burgundy.” Aligoté is made by the codirector of Romani-Conti and his wife in the small village of Buzeron, and has a good measure of fame but small production.
In contradistinction to Burgundy, both red and white Bordeaux are made from a blend of grapes. The permitted red grapes are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec and very rarely carménère.
In the Medoc and the rest of the Left Bank, cabernet sauvignon dominates. On the Right Bank, in Pomerol and Saint Emilion, merlot dominates in the blend. Sémillon, sauvignon blanc and muscadelle are the grapes allowed in the white wines of Bordeaux. The sweet wines of Sauternes are made exclusively from the three aforementioned grapes. Analogous to Burgundy, the name of the property (Château in the case of Bordeaux) appears on the label but the names of the grapes do not appear.
On the Loire, the name of the town and/or the name of the property or village are on the label, but the name of the grape is not. If the wine is red and from Chinon it’s probably made from cabernet franc, if it’s a white from Savennières or Vouvray it’s made from chenin blanc and if it’s a white from Sancerre, Pouily Fumé, Reuilly or Quincy, it’s made from sauvignon blanc.
The Rhône is another region where the name of the town or appellation is on the label, and there is no mention of the grape. If a vineyard is extraordinary, the wine is labeled with the vineyard name. Each appellation specifies which of the 23 grapes allowed in the Rhône can be used within its borders.
Carrying that to the extreme is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which allows 14 grapes in its blend – if the white and red Grenache are counted separately. On the other hand, the microscopic appellation and producer of Cháteau-Grillet makes the Rhône’s most famous white wine from a single grape – viognier. Karen MacNeil, director of the wine program at the CIA in Napa Valley called viognier chardonnay’s exotic sister.
Of course not every major wine region in France follows the same practice on wine labels. Alsace marches to its own drummer. The wines almost always carry the name of the grape on the label and will sometimes include the name of a vineyard if it is a Grand Cru. So much for French uniformity.
If you have questions or comments about wine write to me at The Two River Times or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pick of the Bunch
2011 Jean Max Roger Cm, Sancerre ($30)
2010 Cháteau Taillefer, Pomerol ($35)
2010 Domaine Henri Gouges Clos des Porrets St Georges, Nuits Saint Georges ($80)
2011 Janasse Côtes du Rhône, Rhône ($15)
2011 Charles Joguet Cuvée Terroir, Chinon ($17)
2011 Hugel Gewurztraminer, Alsace ($20)