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On styles, regions, grades and varietals

Monday, October 08, 2012

The past several months have been interesting, and one of the most interesting comments or admissions that I have heard from different people is what they don’t like in a wine, or what type of wine that they don’t like.  While talking to one woman, she said that she hates Chardonnay, so then I asked her several questions which would ultimately enlighten her.  The first one was “do you like Chablis,” which was followed by “do you like Pouilley Fuisse,” and “do you like champagne?”  Well, when she answered yes to the last one, I explained that the bulk of champagne, as well as a lot of other sparkling wines, have a backbone of Chardonnay.

The funny thing is that almost everyone is wine-ignorant, though the levels of which vary from person to person, no matter how many years someone has been consuming wine, producing wine, selling wine, or studying wine.  There is simply too much to know for one, or even a small group of people, to know.  That said, let me get down to some basics. 

The first thing that a wine drinker should start to understand would be designations, or designated regions, of wine and what they mean.  Designations are structured by laws within a country which basically state what can be produced in certain parts of a country.  Now, there is one loophole here, and that is that a wine can still be produced in a certain designated area, but not carry that regions designation on the label.  Let me explain this a little bit further.  Designations usually oversee what can be grown within a certain region, as well as the amount of vineyards allotted and the amount of wine that can be produced carrying that designation.  Bordeaux is both a region, a designation and a style.  The red style is made from five grape varietals; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Mabec.  Others can imitate this style around the world using the same varietals and utilize the term “Bordeaux style” but their wines could never have Bordeaux AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlee – regulated origin name) on the label.  Most designations are based on where they are grown, and the laws overseeing such designations state which grape varietals can be grown there.

In Europe, these designations deal with region and varietal, whereas in other places like the United States, the designations tell you where the grapes were grown.  An example of this would be Napa.  In the states, the laws apply to where the grapes are grown and the minimum of what varietal has to be on the label.  In California, for a wine to only say Chardonnay on the label, then it must be 75% Chardonnay; in Oregon, a Pinot Noir has to be 85% Pinot Noir.

Now, there are also what are called grades of wine, which you can more commonly see in Reisling wines produced in Germany.  Marnie Old, a wine educator extraordinaire who resides in the Greater Philadelphia region, gave one group that I was part of a serious understanding of the grades of wine produced in Germany that you can easily translate off of the bottle labels.  In many places, there are terms such as vin de pays and vino da tavola, which translates to “country wine” and ”table wine” respectively.  “Kabinett” in Germany deals with wine that is normally stored in the cabinet, and which is a step up from what you give to just about anyone.  In Italy, there is IGT, or Indicazione geografica tipica, which is used to denote a superior wine which doesn’t fall under the highest two classifications for wine in that country.  See, this was done to protect vaunted wine styles such as Barolo and Chianti (look up Chianti Classico) when some winemakers figured that they’d reversed the wine formula for Chianti, and put Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon as the main varietals used, and make the minor part Sangiovese, instead of the other way around. 

And when you hear about people visiting France and Italy and that the plain wines that they had there were better than some of the more expensive wines here in the United States, it is because those common wines are still made with great grapes and good winemaking knowledge, and aren’t based on the pursuit of profits that accounts from mass production, a cute label and advertising aimed at luring the gullible in (Yellowtail and Barefoot are examples of mass production). 

The last aspect of all of this is actually varietal, which stands for the grape used.  Grapes are like people, having DNA and everything.  Every Chardonnay isn’t the same, nor is every Bordeaux; within the latter, the grapes used by two great houses might have different DNA, and the actual percentages of each varietal used can be different.  Then, we can get into the issues of the soil and when each grape was planted, harvested and the amount of time used in each step of the winemaking process.  Oh, and let’s not even get into the issue of what type of containers for each phase of the process is used. 

The thing with varietals is that not only are they unique within the name, but there also exists the differences in winemaking styles which also affect the final product.  Two different winemakers could use the exact same grapes but wind up with totally different tasting wines! 

In summation, I have presented you with three or four points of better understanding wine, and if you start to research this for yourself, you will definitely expand on what I have just revealed.  On key thing to realize is that it will take several years to even begin to have a good appreciation for wine.  And at that same time, just because some people rate a wine highly, doesn’t mean that you have to rate it the same; we don’t all have the same tastes and there has been a ton of lies in advertising when it comes to wine(s).  Like what you like, but don’t be afraid to actually open up and try something new.  And in trying something new, sometimes you don’t really get to appreciate it until you try it with something that totally compliments it, be it raw food, cooked food, desserts, the setting or being amongst great friends.

In vino veritas

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