Wine Ink: The global glass — wines of the world
July 25, 2018
If I were to ask you what wine is made in Australia you might, if you have an interest in such things, blurt out "shiraz!" If the pop quiz continued and I said "Portugal" you may smile with purple teeth and answer "port." "Riesling" might be the retort when I mention Germany.
The purpose here is not to mimic a too-cute wine interrogation, rather it is to make the point that when we think of our wines and their origins we tend to think, like we do with most things, in clichés, common denominators or stereotypes. Yes, of course, shiraz is the most well-known wine from the land Down Under, but the country makes marvelous chardonnay, riesling and a host of red varietals other than shiraz. And while Portugal has built a centuries-old global reputation on the production and export of port wines, a style of wine rather than a grape, the country also makes outstanding still and non-fortified wines, many from the same six grapes that make up the backbone of port.
In other words, we sometimes pigeonhole an entire nation's wine identity into a single wine grape or wine style. Think about it, if I may harken back to the interrogation. I say "Spain," you say "tempranillo;" I say "pinotage," you wince a bit and come back with "South Africa." "Hungary," I inquire? "No," you respond, "but I love Tokaji." If you think and drink Kiwi wines, admit it, sauvignon blanc was the first thing that came to mind.
Again, each of those nations produces a plethora of other wines from different grapes and, in some cases, they may actually produce better wines from other grapes (have you had South African cabernet or a pinot noir from New Zealand?), but still we make the simple connection. It's like thinking of bobbies when someone says London or pandas when they say Beijing. They are our reference points.
So how do regions and countries become so closely associated with various wine grapes to begin with? Well, there are different reasons for different grapes and places.
In the Old World some of the grapes or wine styles are indigenous to a place. Others are the result of having been populated for hundreds, if not thousands, of years after their introduction by marauding hordes. In the New World there are often marketing forces at work. Not that there is anything wrong with any of the those reasons.
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Consider sangiovese. This Italian red grape, which you likely would have mentioned if I said "Tuscany," comes, according to recent DNA studies, from two different indigenous Italian grapes that got together, fell in love and made one of the great grapes of the Boot. In other words, the grape that provides the signature for Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino and Tignanello evolved in the most organic way in which a grape becomes identified with a region, i.e., it is from that region.
Then there are grapes that just simply grow well in particular places. We all know the Napa Valley as a sweet spot of cabernet sauvignon. But the grape had to be imported to California from its ancestral home, the Bordeaux region of France. There, the cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc varieties of grapes had a 17th-century dalliance and today cabernet sauvignon is the most popular grape in the world. Yet, no one is really sure who first planted the variety in Napa. Cabernet sauvignon, a robust, hearty grape, also grows well in places as diverse as the Okanagan Valley in Canada, Coonawarra in Australia and the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. This is the second way that a grape and place become intertwined. It just works there.
Then there is the marketing of a wine that creates connection between a grape and a place. For me, the best example may be New Zealand and sauvignon blanc. I love Kiwi savvy, even though some find the green herbaceous characters a bit off-putting. But one of the secrets of the wine's success was a concentrated marketing push by Kiwis to create a brand identification with the wine as they began to sell it globally. Cloudy Bay became synonymous with a grape and place.
That third element is and has been used by many emerging wine regions to self-identify with a non-indigenous grape. How does it work? Well, if I say "Argentina," what will you say?
Malbec certainly would go well with our grilled chimichurri steak tonight.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at email@example.com.