A wine made from Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon will taste more like a wine made from Bordeaux with Cabernet Sauvignon than will a wine made from Bordeaux with Merlot, Pinot Noir, or Syrah. The reason is that grape varietal is a much better predictor of a wine’s character than is the terroir in which the grapes that went into wine were grown.
This is why I continue to believe that the practice of labeling a wine first by varietal, then by region, is the most efficient way to communicate the character and taste of the wine in the bottle.
Of course, the best way to communicate the character and taste of a wine is for the winemaker to lay it all out on the bottle—probably on the back label of the wine. Far more than region and varietal can be outlined in this manner, but so can all sorts of information such as the wine’s strength, flavors, aromas and so much more, including suggested food pairings.
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I’m reminded of my bias for varietal over terroir in labeling protocol and communication to consumers after reading an interesting article by Clara Dalzell in the New York Sun. In the article, Clara writes:
“There is little chance of any new world region adopting the mentality of only producing one style of wine per place and applying the Old World labeling convention. For now we will have to taste broadly or guess what each grape tastes like in each unique place. In contrast, the European model, where climate, soils, and winemaking traditions produce consistently styled wine no matter the grape variety used, gives the drinker a glimpse into what they can expect before they ever pop the cork.”
Clara is a good writer and a smart cookie. Moreover, she is the general manager of a truly great New York City wine shop, Flatiron Wine & Spirits. All that is why I’m hesitant to disagree with her, but I’m pretty sure she’ll take my disagreement in the spirit in which it is intended…as a sort of dialogue.
In Clara’s formulation, one need only understand a regional style in order to have a good idea of what a bottle of wine will deliver to the palate. But, I’d argue, the same or better understanding can be had with knowledge of what a particular grape variety will deliver. In her article, Ms. Dalzell notes that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc would never be confused with Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc. But that’s not entirely true. The fact is that the character, flavors, and aromas Sauvignon Blanc grapes produce in a wine are similar whether it is Sauvignon Blanc grapes grown in New Zealand, Napa Valley, or South Africa.
More important is the purpose of identifying the varietal or the region on a label. It’s not just for categorization or legal purposes. It’s for educational purposes as Clara points out in her article. And the fact is, the vast majority of wine is drunk by average wine drinkers whose knowledge of wine, grape varieties, and region, let alone winemaking techniques, is fairly limited. So, when we ask what method of identifying a wine on a label is likely to be more efficient in communicating how the wine is going to taste, the varietal seems to me to be the clear answer.
In fact, more people in the U.S., and possibly around most of the world, would have a better idea of what white “Burgundy” is likely to taste like if “Chardonnay” were highlighted on the bottle, rather than any region, because the Chardonnay grape produces wine with the same identifiable characteristics that can be found in its wines made in Burgundy, the Sonoma Coast, the Willamette Valley, and Chile or elsewhere.
You should not construe any of this to mean I’m dismissing or even dissing the idea of terroir, though that idea has, of late, taken on more subjective dimensions than simply soil, climate, elevation, and aspect of the land. The truth of terroir, of the impact of natural forces on the growth of fruit on a grapevine, is incontrovertible. Just plant Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley and in the Sahara desert. You can probably get the latter to grow grapes, but they’ll produce distinctly different wine than the Napa Cabernet.
Still, the genetics of Cabernet (clone for clone) are the same no matter where it is grown. And those genetics will produce a similar set of characteristics in wines from around the globe, particularly when you consider that there is a cross-section of the globe defined by a latitudinal band in the Northern and Southern hemispheres where most all wine grapes are cultivated.
I think there is a tendency to discount varietal labeling on wine in favor of regional labeling because to those in the know and those with a sophisticated understanding of wine there is a bias against New World (particularly Californian) wines, where region is not the primary organizing principle. Moreover, those with a more sophisticated understanding of wine demand a bit more sophistication from their wines, and regional labeling is just that—a somewhat deeper, more complicated organizing structure.