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Trials and Tribulations
Another European Closes His Mind To Vinous Possibility

By Stephen Eliot

Is it wrong to think about wines in terms of their varietal composition? Is “terroir” so important that a wine’s provenance should be the thing that we think about first? Is it time that we accept that varietal labeling is outmoded and insufficiently informative about how a wine tastes and, as Andrew Jefford suggested in yesterday’s Monday musings for Decanter magazine*, no more than a crutch for the intellectually lazy who long for “conceptual simplicity”?

It is a question that caught me off guard, and the more I think about it, the more I cannot help but see in it another sneak attack at the way things are done outside of Europe. Now, I have always looked forward to what Mr. Jefford has to say and regard him as one of the more thoughtful and thoroughly skilled wordsmiths in the wine-writing field, but the notion that thinking about a wine in terms of its cultivar is an “impediment to its understanding” has me feeling at least a little defensive.

Like it or not, when you live in a place, as we do here on the other side of the world, where so many different grapes flourish side by side, varietal labeling strikes me as not at all confusing but, in fact, downright fundamental. It is easy enough to ignore a wine’s basic cepage if everyone in a place pretty much does the same thing, and easier still when that has been the case for a very long time.

It is like when learning a new language, there is a point when you grasp a word’s meaning without first needing to translate it in your head. I do not think “Sauvignon Blanc” when Sancerre is the topic, nor does “Gamay Noir” suddenly leap to mind when someone says Fleurie or Morgon, but when I hear the words Carneros, Dry Creek Valley, Paso Robles, Russian River or the Santa Rita Hills, I find no instant functional analog that comfortably informs me of what to expect is in the bottle. Syrah? Chenin Blanc? Pinot Noir, or perhaps, Chardonnay? Would anyone seriously suggest that a wine’s place, maker and vintage are more fundamental in defining its real character than is the grape from which it is made? Now, I do not mean to suggest for a moment that simply knowing a wine’s cultivar is enough; not, at least, for those of us who see wine more than a simple, mood-lifting beverage. It is important, but so too is its place and its maker, and it seems to me that the real gravitas of any truly fine wine can only be grasped by thorough knowledge and understanding of all three.

There are those who regard a keen expression of place as the ultimate aim and achievement for any wine that is worthwhile, but that expression must be seen in the context of a given grape lest we believe that Pinot, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling will all taste the same from a given patch of earth. What is true is that this or that varietal can and will show a different face from place to place, and its identity can become pretty shadowy in some, but, as I see it, we are far from being able to transcend varietal thinking as a useful way by which to order our thoughts about wine.

Until such time as the New World’s vinous landscape is as culturally and historically defined as that of an appellation-bound Europe, understanding the essentials of one of its wines is hard, if not downright impossible. Despite Mr. Jefford’s conclusion that the variety “no more than the third most important thing about a wine,” making a selection based on place or person alone is little more than an unwinnable guessing game.



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