How 75% can be better than 100%
For the past couple of generations, many wine lovers - especially in the United States and other New World countries - would likely answer, "100 percent, of course!"
That's because "varietal labeling" has been the preferred system for most high-quality wines sold in the U.S. since the early years after World War II, when a wine merchant and journalist named Frank Schoonmaker almost single-handedly persuaded the American wine industry to name its wines for the grape variety, supplanting the old, somewhat shoddy practice of borrowing French place names like "burgundy" and "chablis" for wines that had little in common with the Old Country. Over the years, varietal labeling became so dominant that wines made entirely from one variety came to be thought of as "better" than wines made from blends of more than one grape.
But is this necessarily so? With a few noteworthy exceptions, you'll rarely see varietal labeling in most of France or Italy, where wine makers follow the long-standing practice of naming wines after the geographical region where the grapes were grown. This practice frees the makers in many regions, like Bordeaux, to grow a number of permitted grapes, and base each year's "assemblage" or blend of grapes upon what actually happened in the vineyard, blending Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc (for example) in varying proportions as needed to make the best wine possible from each year's harvest.
Other noteworthy European blends include Chianti (a blend of mostly Sangiovese with Canaiolo, Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes); Champagne (where many "cuvees" are made by mixing white (Chardonnay) and RED (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) grapes; and Sherry, which features not just a blend of grapes but also a mixture of wines of many vintages in a traditional blending system called "solera." And even in the U.S., in a mild reaction to varietal labeling, wines made from Bordeaux-style blends may be marketed under the trademarked name "Meritage" (as discussed in our Sept. 11, 2000 edition, http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor/tswa091100.shtml.)
Proponents of blending would note that there's no intrinsic reason why all-varietal wines should be better. On the contrary, any respectable Bordeaux maker would argue that blending allows the wine maker flexibility to select from a broader palette to create the most artful finished product.
And indeed, even in the U.S., federal law requires that wines with varietal labeling contain only 75 percent of the grape named on the label. Except in a few wine-making states like Oregon where stricter local laws override this rule, the balance of the blend is the wine maker's option, and need not be disclosed. Think about THAT, the next time you're sipping a single-variety wine.
Finally, a brief grammatical note: The word "varietal" is properly used only for the labeling system itself. Grapes come in "varieties," not "varietals."
What's your opinion? Do you strongly prefer varietal wines or blends? If you would like to comment, write me by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or join an active online discussion on this topic on our Wine Lovers' Discussion Group, http://www.wineloverspage.com/cgi-bin/sb/index.cgi?fn=1. I regret that the growing circulation of the "Wine Advisor" makes it difficult for me to reply individually to every note, and my travels this month will also limit my ability to respond; but I'll answer as many as I can; and please be assured that all your input helps me do a better job of writing about wine.
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A remarkable California blend
A wild blend of both grapes and vintages, this hearty and robust red brings Syrah, Merlot, Carignane, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Mourvèdre to the table (and maybe more), a Mediterranean mix that's earthy and multi-dimensional. Cinnamon and cloves leap from the glass in a remarkably spicy scent, with aromatic menthol and a distinct note of "tree bark." More of the same exotics on the palate, where the spicy flavors surround a core of bright, plummy fruit and lemon-squirt acidity. (Feb. 4, 2001)
FOOD MATCH: The wine's big and spicy flavors make it a fine match with a robust Northern Italian rendition of lamb and white beans in an herbal sauce.
How helpful is your wine shop?
This week's Wine Lovers' Voting Booth samples your opinion about the amount and quality of information about specific wines that's available from the wine shop you frequent most often, taking into consideration both the knowledge and helpfulness of the staff and outside research information available such as published wine reviews and reference books.
I hope you'll drop by the Voting Booth, http://www.wineloverspage.com/votebooth, and answer the question "How helpful is your wine shop?" (Note also that this week's survey, in a follow-up question. invites you to name the specific shop you're rating.)
Thanks for the many responses!
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All the wine-tasting reports posted here are consumer-oriented. In order to maintain objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, I purchase all the wines I rate at my own expense in retail stores and accept no samples, gifts or other gratuities from the wine industry.
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Vol. 3, No. 3, Feb. 5, 2001