Mar 19, 201410:07 AM
All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans
Geeking Out About Grapes
Thinking about the grapes behind the wines
smrcoun, stock.xchng, 2008
After that first sniff and then the sip, the geek-factor comes out, almost immediately, and the discussion centers on flavors like butter or oak; on past experiences like being at a movie theater or in Grandma’s kitchen; on other fruits and vegetables like beets or papaya; or on other times like the great wine of 1995.
But to discuss the grapes themselves is not usually done. Sometimes the grapes come into discussion with the comment on some wines that the wine tastes “grape-y.” That, my friends, in the wine world is definitely not a compliment. Odd, but true.
The grapes that are used for wine are completely different from those used for munching on as snacks. The Sultana, what we call Thompson Seedless, is grown be eaten as fresh as possible, and is lower in sugar than grapes harvested for wine. Those dedicated to wine production are heartier on the vine, usually thicker skinned, and the seeds are robust.
Most wine drinkers have never had the pleasure of tasting a ripe wine grape in order to fully appreciate what the winemaker is working with, and to anticipate what will be the end result at the end of the journey, which is in your glass.
If you are curious, let’s stroll through the vineyards.
Chardonnay – Without a doubt the most dissed wine by reviewers and loved by consumers. Also the most purchased. One out of every three bottles of wine sold in the United States is Chardonnay. This green-skinned grape likely is not related to any other varietal, although for years it was thought to be a cousin of pinot blanc. The chardonnay grape likely was brought to France from Syria, in the long-gone Persian Empire, by returning soldiers from the Crusades. The grape is quite neutral in color as well as aromas. A great deal of what we enjoy in Chardonnay is the result of harvest timing and oak aging.
Sauvignon Blanc – Another green-skinned grape, this is a derivative of a red grape from the western area of France. The red grape is likely carmenere or cabernet franc. It was not unusual in France for red grape plantings in the vineyards to be interspersed with white grape plantings. That is still done in blends at the winery all the time, particularly in the Rhone region. The grape prospered in Bordeaux, but its greatest result is from the Loire Valley. Sancerres are absolute sauvignon blanc perfection. California is doing a good job with this grape, and New Zealand is capable but has for years been guilty of overplanting their vineyards.
Pinot Grigio – likely originated in Burgundy where the grape morphed into a light-skinned style from pinot noir. The grape was taken to Hungary by Emperor Charles V who loved the wines from this grape and gave cuttings to Cistercian monks. It drifted south around the Alps and the Dolomites and really found a home in the northeastern area of Italy where it is called pinot gris. Like pinot noir, the grape is sort of fickle and its low yields and uncertain ripening in cooler climates caused winemakers in Burgundy and Germany to rip it out in the 1700s.
Pinot Noir - As long as we are on the pinot subject, we might as well discuss this frontrunner. The origins of pinot noir are not clear, pre-dating the first century where it was described in Burgundy. It is one of only two or three domesticated grapes of the genus vitis vinifera that began as wild vines. For a grape that is so demanding of its environment, it is surprisingly widespread in plantings, growing in just about every grape growing region of the world. The name is derived because the tight clusters on the vines during growing season resemble a pine cone. The tightness contributes to its fickle nature in that water from late-season rains can become trapped in the cluster with no opportunity to dissipate, causing rot and mildew.
Merlot – Likely an offshoot of the cabernet franc grape with influences from carmenere and cabernet sauvignon, this grape was first noted around 1750 in the Bordeaux area of Libourne. The blue-black grape skin led to the name merle, French for blackbird. Merlot means little blackbird. The grape is lighter in color and less tannic than cabernet sauvignon, which leads to the character most often associated with the wines, velvet. Merlot wines are almost always blended with other grapes since merlot can, without a bit of a supporting cast, become flabby and unfocused. If you doubt that, check out the 2004 movie Sideways. ‘Nuff said.
Cabernet Sauvignon – A recent discovery in 1996 proved that cabernet sauvignon is a relatively new grape variety, probably the result of an “accident” combining carmenere and sauvignon blanc which took place in Bordeaux, possibly even at Chateau Mouton in the Medoc, in the latter part of the 18th century. Are you surprised to learn that this “king” of red grapes started as a white grape? Or that it is “modern.” So were a lot scientists and vineyard owners. DNA research shot down all the beliefs that this grape, or its predecessors, was the preferred beverage of Pliny the Elder in ancient Rome, or that the grape emanated from the Rhone region of France. Those stories were more romantic than the simple truth of having a couple of grape vines “do the deed” out in some quiet and remote vineyard.
Obviously we have just scratched the surface here. And have not even covered a small percentage of the world’s wine grapes. For instance, have you been able to work into conversation lately that the Alicante Bouschet grape does not have white meat like most all other red grapes. Rather, it has pink meat which, with the grape’s very dark skin, can impart an incredibly deep black hue to any wine blend. Or have you seen and tasted a seed from wine grapes both during maturation and then when the fruit is ready for harvest? I won’t give away the answer about what to look for.
There has to be some mystery left in the relationship.