Great Varietals...and the Rest

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Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Bill Spohn » Fri Aug 29, 2008 4:07 pm

It seems to me that there are a small group of grapes from which it is possible, with suitable care in cultivation, favourable terroirs and a deft hand at winemaking to create a fist class wine.

It also seems to me that there is another group of varietals that fall into a category of 'useful but never, or rarely outstanding'. They can complement a wine as a part of a blend but only in rare cases would they stand on theri own in the truly first class category.

And finally there is a third class of varietals that may be useful, but will never make a great wine, or perhaps even an average decent wine.

One could posit several more classes with even finer distinction, but I think that those will suffice for now. I wondered what varietals people viewed as being in which classes - I realize that there will be some blurring of the boundaries depending on personal preference and experience.

Here is an off the cuff set of my suggestions - I don't represent them as definitive as there are so many different varietals and I'm sure I will miss many, and anyway, I reserve the right to review them with more thought or after hearing the persuasive arguments of others. And don't jump on me with that killer Mencia you had last week, or that sublime Teroldego.


First Class: Cabernet (let's not quibble about which ones), Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Sangiovese (an argument for putting this one rung down may be entertained)

Second Class: Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, many German grapes, Carmenere, Petit Verdot, Petit Sirah, Zinfandel, Mourvedre, Grenache, Pinotage, Barbera

Third Class: all non-vinifera grapes, a number of mundane hybrids like Ruby Cabernet and Marechal Foch, and a host too numerous to ....enumerate.

Any additions to classes 1 and 2, or movements between them? I'm sure I've missed a few.
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Brian Gilp » Fri Aug 29, 2008 4:12 pm

Nebiolo. First Class
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Dan Donahue » Fri Aug 29, 2008 4:15 pm

I would add Grüner Veltliner, Chenin Blanc and Nebbiolo to the first list and drop Pinotage and Carmenère to the last.

I'm not sure where I would pencil in Tempranillo and Touriga Nacional, but you could argue that they belong on top.
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Ryan M » Fri Aug 29, 2008 4:17 pm

I think your first class list is spot on, with a few additions. Absolutely Sangiovese deserves to be in the first class list - Brunello alone justifies it, without even considering the best Chianti and Vino Nobile. And if Sangiovese is there, then Nebbiolo ought to be as well - on the basis of Barolo and Barbaresco. I would like to suggest one elevation, and that is Semillon, on the basis of Sauternes.
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Dale Williams » Fri Aug 29, 2008 4:21 pm

With the disclaimer that I am only speaking for my tastes , Nebbiolo would certainly make my list of First Class, as would Chenin Blanc. I'd probably add Tempranillo and Gruner Veltliner, too.

But the whole idea is a losing battle. Is Gamay second class? No expensive wines, but plenty I have loved. Semillon and SB combine to make HBB, which is one of the greatest whites in the world for me.
Whole list would be riddled with exceptions.
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Bill Spohn » Fri Aug 29, 2008 4:24 pm

Oops - Nebbiolo should certainly be in the first group, I told you I'd forget something important.

I figured the Yquem nuts would be up in arms about the Semillon (as might those who have had a rare old Austalian Semillon). That one is certainly arguable. But would you agree that with Sauternes it is the Semillon, not the Sauv Blanc that would be bumped up?

I'm not going to argue much about Brunellos - have your way with me - though I don't think that it would be warranted if we were just talking about Chianti.

Tempranillo and Touriga Nacional would certainly be in at least the second group, and I have a hard time arguing about the demotion of Carmenere and Pinotage, perhaps to third class with honorable mention as being better than the rank and file down there.
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Ryan M » Fri Aug 29, 2008 4:29 pm

Bill Spohn wrote:Oops - Nebbiolo should certainly be in the first group, I told you I'd forget something important.

I figured the Yquem nuts would be up in arms about the Semillon (as might those who have had a rare old Austalian Semillon). That one is certainly arguable. But would you agree that with Sauternes it is the Semillon, not the Sauv Blanc that would be bumped up?

I'm not going to argue much about Brunellos - have your way with me - though I don't think that it would be warranted if we were just talking about Chianti.

Tempranillo and Touriga Nacional would certainly be in at least the second group, and I have a hard time arguing about the demotion of Carmenere and Pinotage, perhaps to third class with honorable mention as being better than the rank and file down there.


I'm a Tuscanophile, but I agree that if it were just Chianti, Sangiovese might not be justifiable. As for Sauternes, most of them are 90% Semillon, so I think that justifies Semillon, although between Sauternes, dry white Bordeaux, and the best Loire SB's, Sauv Blanc probably deserves first class as well.
Last edited by Ryan M on Fri Aug 29, 2008 4:37 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Bill Spohn » Fri Aug 29, 2008 4:30 pm

Dale Williams wrote:But the whole idea is a losing battle. Is Gamay second class? No expensive wines, but plenty I have loved. Semillon and SB combine to make HBB, which is one of the greatest whites in the world for me.
Whole list would be riddled with exceptions.


No, I said that the second class was 'useful but never, or rarely outstanding'. Which means that there may be the odd exceptional wine made from them, but it would be the exception rather than the rule. We wouldn't demote cabernet or Riesling from first class because of all of the insipid plonk made from them and we shouldn't elevate the second group because of the odd very good wine made from them. It is more a question of whether the exceptional ones occur with any frequency.

I've had exceptional Petit Sirahs (many people won't have had the same opportunity and will think I am mad for saying so) but those few don't warrant an elevation of that varietal.
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Howie Hart » Fri Aug 29, 2008 4:37 pm

Bill Spohn wrote:Third Class: all non-vinifera grapes, a number of mundane hybrids like Ruby Cabernet and Marechal Foch, and a host too numerous to ....enumerate...
First of all, I agree with Dale on Chenin Blanc. Second of all, Ruby Cabernet is not a hybrid, but vinifera. It is, however, mundane. By categorizing "all non-vinifera grapes" as Third Class, you are excluding from your tasting experience some excellent wines. Maybe I don't get Sauvignon Blanc. I've never had one that floored me, but I have had several Vignoles and Delaware wines that I've enjoyed much more.
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Mike Pollard » Fri Aug 29, 2008 4:41 pm

If the definition of the top tier is "grapes from which it is possible, with suitable care in cultivation, favourable terroirs and a deft hand at winemaking to create a fist class wine", then you have to add any variety which excells in any particular location. Hunter Valley Semillon would have to qualify - irrespective of what Semillon does elsewhere in the wine world. I'd also add Muscat a petit grains Rouge, or Brown Muscat as it is known locally in Rutherglen, Victoria (Australia) where it is used to make some of finest dessert wines in the world or as James Halliday has written "They have no equivalent in any other part of the world."

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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Dale Williams » Fri Aug 29, 2008 5:02 pm

So beyond white Bordeaux (HBB and Pape Clement blanc are about equal SB and Semillon, Laville I think is a more Sauternes- like mostly Sem blend), SB is also the grape of the Cotats, D. Dageneau, and Vatan. Are the majority of wines made from SB great? No, but Latour and Sassacaia are a tiny fraction of the wines made from Cabernet. My point was I'm not sure where you can draw the line. How many exceptions does it take? If great SB can be made in the Loire, and as a blend in Bdx, and some very very good SB in NZ and Austria, and an occasional eyeopener in CA, is that clearly not " with suitable care in cultivation, favourable terroirs and a deft hand at winemaking to create a fist class wine."
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Andrew Burge » Fri Aug 29, 2008 5:26 pm

Where would you place Gewurz and Pinot Gris - surely there are Alsaceophiles out there up in arms about their absence from the list :)

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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Bill Spohn » Fri Aug 29, 2008 5:28 pm

Dale Williams wrote:My point was I'm not sure where you can draw the line. How many exceptions does it take? If great SB can be made in the Loire, and as a blend in Bdx, and some very very good SB in NZ and Austria, and an occasional eyeopener in CA, is that clearly not " with suitable care in cultivation, favourable terroirs and a deft hand at winemaking to create a fist class wine."


I agree with your point - hard and fast lines are danged near impossible to draw.

But taking sauv blanc as an example, in Bordeaux, it is used as a secondary blending component (much as carmenere might have been in the old days in the reds), in the Antipodes, very good but certainly not great wines result, and the same for California. A harder area is the Loire, but I still say good, but never or very, very rarely great. Let's talk about chenin in the Loire - and that might be a different argument.

So I still say that SB is a good solid member of the second class and the fact that it happens to be a minority component in Yquem doesn't elevate it to first class.
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Rahsaan » Fri Aug 29, 2008 5:34 pm

I think sauvignon blanc and gamay can go together in the second class. As much as I love gamay wines, neither gamay nor sauvignon blanc really produces wines that are profound in the same way as pinot noir, syrah, riesling, etc. Once you exclude one or two exceptions. And for sauvignon blanc there are very very very few exceptions :wink:

Otherwise, I am surprised the semantic police haven't arrived to criticize your use of 'great'..
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Bill Spohn » Fri Aug 29, 2008 5:36 pm

Andrew Burge wrote:Where would you place Gewurz and Pinot Gris - surely there are Alsaceophiles out there up in arms about their absence from the list


I'm a big Alsace fan myself. I'd put them in the second group with many very good wines made from them but few absolutely top rate ones. It is an interesting aside that the very best wines from Alsace seem to be the late harvest wines and that the higher the RS (and the older the wine) the less discernable varietal content there is. I've had a number of old sweet Gewurz - VT and SGR wines, that you wouldn't be able to tell from several other possible varietals.

Remember, just because a varietal falls into class 2 doesn't mean that there aren't the odd exceptional wines made from them. Those Petit Sirahs are a good example.

The muscat example is a tough one, and I agree begs the question of how you define the performance levels necessary to get into a classification. If a grape makes a great wine in just one spot on the globe, should it not be entitled to class 1 if it does it consistently? So you'd get common grapes making uncommon wine in specific areas, as well as uncommon varietals making great wines in small areas. An example of the last might be Furmint, as anyone that has tased much Tokay Essencia can attest.

Anyway, remember that this is just an interesting pastime for a Friday afternoon when most of us should be doing something more important anyway, not a serious effort with consequences, like, say, the periodic adjustment of classed growths in St. Emilion..... :mrgreen: :lol: :mrgreen:
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Hoke » Fri Aug 29, 2008 5:37 pm

Since I don't agree with the premises you've already designed to fit what you already believe, I can't play your game

Never play in a game where you have to bet against the house, especially when the house makes the rules in their favor only. :?
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Bill Spohn » Fri Aug 29, 2008 5:40 pm

Thanks for posting why you wouldn't be posting, Hoke. Otherwise some of us might have wondered.... :roll:
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby David Creighton » Fri Aug 29, 2008 5:46 pm

pinotage and petite syrah and maybe others to third - vignoles to second
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Hoke » Fri Aug 29, 2008 6:17 pm

Bill Spohn wrote:Thanks for posting why you wouldn't be posting, Hoke. Otherwise some of us might have wondered.... :roll:


Oh, you're quite welcome, Bill.

I would've loved to have played, had it been an open field.
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Rahsaan » Fri Aug 29, 2008 8:03 pm

Hoke wrote:I would've loved to have played, had it been an open field.


???

You mean you would have loved to rank wines if the parameters were open?

I thought surely you were against the whole ranking exercise.
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Rahsaan » Fri Aug 29, 2008 8:07 pm

Bill Spohn wrote:...uncommon varietals making great wines in small areas. An example of the last might be Furmint, as anyone that has tased much Tokay Essencia can attest.


I don't know much about the genetic potential of furmint but on my recent trip to Hungary it was clearly more 'noble' than some of the other grapes they were growing. Even though some winemakers were making better wines from these other grapes (e.g. Welsch riesling or Juhfark), the inherant foxy un-nobleness of those grapes was always apparent whereas the furmint showed more class and refinement even if the particular example was loose from young vines.

That is why I do believe that there are different levels to what different grapes can produce, even if the lines are not hard and fast and there are no absolute ranking categories.
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Bob Henrick » Fri Aug 29, 2008 8:15 pm

Bill, I would add Nebbiolo to the 1st group. It is pretty clear to me that Barolo and Barbaresco are world class wines and the parent grape deserves inclusion. I might well come back with more suggestions too.

Ok, I am back with more:

I would for sure include chenin in the 1st tier, and am very tempted to include sauvignon blanc. I don't know about many Portuguese grapes that I would rank alone but the grapes that make up Porto together make a convincing argument for placement. If semillon deserves inclusion for Sauternes and Barsac, then Furmint deserves attention (and maybe inclusion) for Tokaji. It could be that it is just my love of well made old type Spanish wines that would make me include Tempranillo in at least the 2nd tier. Ok, that's enuf for now.
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby David Glasser » Sat Aug 30, 2008 2:58 am

Bill:

I'd put Grenache in the first tier. There are plenty of C-du-P that I consider outstanding, unless you disqualify them based on blending.
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Re: Great Varietals...and the Rest

Postby Rahsaan » Sat Aug 30, 2008 5:53 am

David Glasser wrote:I'd put Grenache in the first tier. There are plenty of C-du-P that I consider outstanding, unless you disqualify them based on blending.


Grenache is definitely a second tier grape. Why? Because it's not my favorite.. :D

More seriously, how many stellar world-class 100% grenache wines do you find in CDP? Everyone agrees that Bordeaux wine can be excellent but nobody is nominating petit verdot for world class grape status. Same thing for Champagne and pinot meunier, Cote Rotie and viognier, etc. (Admittedly the percentages are a little different).

Still, I think grenache is similar to gamay, sauvignon blanc, mourvedre, barbera, and many other grapes in that certain people will like certain wines from certain producers and certain terroirs but they are not going to display the same heights as the greats.
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