The Wine Organizing Principle: First Varietal, Then Terroir
If a Sonoma Pinot Noir tastes much more like a Burgundy Pinot Noir than it does a Sonoma County Zinfandel, isn’t this a very strong argument for making varietals the organizing idea behind wine?
This is the question that occurred to me when I read Andrew Jefford’s article in Decanter that made the opposite case. Jeffords, who is a very clear-headed, succinct and thoughtful writer, gave us the money quote to his argument early in the article when he wrote this:
“If we were to regard place and the cultural traditions of place as the primary translators of wine flavour, and variety as secondary and anecdotal, we’d be wiser wine lovers.”
My thinking is this: before one delves into the cultural and terroir aspects of wine, one must first understand the most important building blocks of wine flavor and aroma. And that is most certainly linked to variety. This is why Pinot Noirs from Sonoma, Burgundy, New Zealand and Oregon have more similarity of aroma and flavor than Zinfandels, Cabernets, Grenache, Syrah and Pinot Noir all made from grapes grown in the same vineyard in California or anywhere else.
Jefford’s case relies a great deal on recent discoveries surrounding the DNA of grape varieties. He writes: “the more that I consider the highly technical distinction between variety and mutation; and the more that DNA insights reveal genetic links between varieties that make absolutely no sense whatsoever in relation to aroma and flavour; then the more questionable our attachment to the notion of variety begins to seem….the implications of genetic damage or errors in the DNA of a single variety can be far more consequential, to the human eye, nose and mouth, than the DNA boundary markers between varieties, even though that damage or those errors might be minute or insignificant in the DNA profile as a whole. It’s, um, weird.”
It’s pretty interesting case he is making and deserves some consideration. His point is well taken. But here is where I think he goes off the rails:
“So are we really doing a favour to Marlborough’s Sauvignon growers by continually benchmarking their wines against Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé? Mendoza Malbec isn’t similar to Cahors at all; Rutherford Cabernet and Margaux have almost nothing in common. Tasting Chablis seems to me to be irrelevant if you want to make (or enjoy) a white wine which happens to come from Chardonnay grapes in Margaret River.”
It has never been necessary to benchmark Marlborough’s Sauvignon Blanc against Sancerre or Pouilly Fume. But we do because the latter Sauvignon Blanc-made wines have long been more familiar to us. But it’s not necessary. However, There ARE Sauvignon Blancs from Marlborough that taste very familiar to French Sauvignon Blancs. And there are Napa Valley Cabernets that taste very familiar to Bordeaux. And there are Sonoma Syrahs that taste very familiar to Rhone made Syrahs. And the reasons they do is because they are made with the same grape.
There is no better way to categorize wines aromas and flavors than by variety for the simple reason that nothing influences the aromas or flavors of a wine more strongly than variety. Yes, there are regional differences due to terroir and due to traditional vinification techniques commonly used in different regions. But assuming these techniques are no so radical, they won’t remove the unique signature that a grape variety delivers to a wine made with that variety.
And so here is where Jefford and I disagree: “It may, though, be time to move on to the post-cultivar age. Why make a fetish of what is no more than the third most important thing about a wine?”
His is an excellent article and thought-provoking. I recommend it highly.