Knowing the Grape

There are well more than a dozen grape varieties, too many for any one of us regular people to know well. There are those that are "noble" and others less so. How should you regard this?

Let us put it this way. There are certain grapes which will produce a wine of extraordinary character, so much above the others, that their production, in limited amounts, will exceed the price of all other kinds. In most cases, the highest priced wines - which is the way the public ranks the desire to have them, among all discriminators - is, in part, the nobility of the grape, coupled with the conditions (soil, wind, temperature, rain fall, nearby rivers and mountains, etc) under which it has grown, been harvested, then blended, and allowed to reach its finish.

Open any book on the "great wines of the world" and you can readily learn which wines they are. The Best Wines will also be the most expensive ones you can buy.

Within this short list, you will recognize four grapes which are consistently represented: the Cabernet Sauvignon, the Pinot Noir, the Sauvignon Blanc, and the Chardonnay. Italians will argue that those grapes unique to Italy are in that class. They are not. Very good they can be, but in the "best of the best" category, they are absent. Same for every other country in Europe, Australia, or South America.

A 100 point wine is the result of a combination of choices and skills. Choices meaning such things as where the grapes are planted, with what other "lesser" grape varieties they might be combined (to add special quality), the conditions and time under which the wine ferments, and any final flourishes made to bring the combinations to a peak.

There are lesser quality grapes - I prefer to name them "less noble" - within which their quality can add advantage to one of the noble grapes. A wine made entirely with such a grape lacks complexity, but when it is added in small percentage to a "noble" grape, the combination can be better than either alone.

Consider the Merlot. More than two decades ago, this grape became a favorite of Hippies and Yuppies all over America. Compared to Cabernet, which it sort of resembles, it is nevertheless, of inferior strength and character. But since it produces less tannins (the early, bitter, quality of a newly fermented wine) than does Cabernet, when Merlot is combined with Cabernet, the first softens the second, making it more drinkable by most enthusiasts, earlier in the process of maturation. Merlot adds "softness".

Or consider the Malbec, a lesser known blending grape of France than is Merlot. Malbec is not softer, but it can be said to be more "spicier". Not unlike the Syrah - but in a different way - when added to Cabernet. Malbec adds "character".

Well here is the key point regarding grapes. Malbec grows like a weed in Argentina, and is "best" from that country than all others - bottled as such, for its own sake. You can have a "good Malbec" using acceptable nomenclature. But a "great Malbec" is a misnomer. And a $100 bottle of Malbec is absurd. This grape is incapable of rising to the level of Cabernet as a "great" wine.

The same can be said of Merlot. "Good" is a proper term for the better Merlots, but "great" is a misnomer, and at $100 a bottle, is absurd. Merlot is a minor grape, a blending grape. On its own, it is a wine best consumed with lunch.

If you look at the most expensive wines in the world, those made from Cabernet Sauvignon (from the Bordeaux region) and Pinot Noir (from the Burgundy region) will be at the very top. Between the two grapes, those Pinto Noirs from small plots in Burgundy have purchase prices at the top of the top. Thus, growing Pinot Noir in California and elsewhere for its special qualities has commercial promise. California has done wonderful things with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, but has yet to produce a world class Pinot Noir. They seem to be getting closer in the cooler areas of Oregon and Washington state, but the best Pinots still come from France.

As regards California, it can boast of having virtually every grape on the planet growing somewhere in the state. In that state it is customary for the wine maker to name the wine by its grape, plus the name of its maker. In France, it is customary to name the place where the grape is grown, rather than the name of the grape.

Thus in France, we know that everything in red from Bordeaux is cabernet with some blending. In Burgundy, we know that everything in red is the Pinot Noir, with some blending. In the Rhone Valley we can bet that in red, both Cabernet and Pinot Noir are absent, in their place being a blend of other red grapes you never heard of.

In Burgundy, the preferred white grape is the Pinot Chardonnay, but if a French winery markets the grape more prominently on its label than where it was grown, you can count on that wine being much subdued over any Chardonnay made in California.

Having read this far into this opinion piece, you might think that the "house red" at this writer's home comes from a grape mentioned on this page. Nope. It is the Syrah. In the right hands, it makes a wonderful, inexpensive, non-tiring red wine, with nose, body, and character. I get it from Australia. Where they call it "Shiraz", as do many California wine merchants.