Has the case for grape varieties been overstated? Do we make too much of them?
Andrew Jefford thinks so.
Writing in his latest blog for Decanter he argues that:
Too much ‘varietal thinking’… may inhibit and shackle wine appreciation. 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.
Wine grape varieties has become a hot topic, as the success of the remarkable Wine Grapes shows. Personally, I’m right behind the quest for unusual or near-extinct varieties. But I also think Jefford has a very good point.
What makes a wine interesting? The grape variety? Not really. It’s the soil. Of course, you need a reasonably good match between the climate and the grape variety (there aren’t many places in the Languedoc that can do Pinot Noir well), but beyond this it’s the soil that is the limiting factor in wine quality.
Interesting soils make interesting wine. Couple a grape variety with the right soils and climate, and suddenly you have something worth drinking.
Certain vineyards seem to have a talent for particular varieties. I remember chatting to Tim Kirk of Clonakilla, and he put it well: Clonakilla’s vineyard can grow a number of varieties well, but it has a special talent for Syrah.
Or lets look at Cabernet Franc. It’s a bit-part player in Bordeaux, but in the Loire, it’s a star red variety in its own right. It’s also one of the star red varieties in Canada’s Niagara wine region. The soils and climate dictate this.
A grape variety cannot make interesting wine in the absence of soils and climate. A vineyard with good soils and climate can make interesting wine from any one of a number of varieties (even though, as we have discussed, it may just have a special talent for one or two). It’s the vineyard – the place – that is so critical for fine wine.
There are two ways to learn about wine; two routes into this engrossing subject. The first and easiest is the grapes. Learning about varieties simplifies the world of wine, but it’s only a stepping stone onto the second: the geography. It is the geography of wine – the place, the vineyard, the soil, the climate – that leads us to a proper understanding of the subject. It’s more complicated, but it’s much more satisfying and profound.