It’s time to put the noble grapes in their place
By Eric Asimov
The way people talk about wine often reflects their other beliefs about the world.
When gender attributes were more rigidly defined than they are now, for example, it was common to hear wines described as masculine or feminine. This has diminished, though, as people have come to see that gender does not predestine character and personality.
Similarly, in socially stratified societies, wines were commonly discussed in terms of their class or breeding. This tendency, too, has ebbed, as social orders in many places have become more fluid.
Wine grapes, however, still seem to be in the grip of an inflexible caste system that establishes the limits of a grape’s potential. Some people, like writer Robert Joseph, defend this hierarchical view of grapes. But to me, it’s a narrow-minded, obstinate and sadly condescending way to look at a world of wine that has become far more egalitarian than it has ever been before.
Until fairly recently, generations of wine authorities habitually referred to the “noble” grapes, classically a group of six considered to have aristocratic potential: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling. The constituency differed slightly, depending on who was doing the ordaining, but this was the core group.
Notice something about them? Five are French, and one, riesling, is German, though it’s grown in Alsace as well. It’s not surprising. The phrase originated in France (cépages nobles), and was popularized in Britain, a prime market for French wines and, before World War I, for German wines as well.
Even as societies have become more socially mobile, the popular idea of nobility among grapes has hung on stubbornly, though it has expanded somewhat. One recent grouping put the number at 18.
But while that was a laudable effort to democratize the upper class of grapes, it was still a class system, too rigid and limiting to contribute to a comprehensive understanding of wine and how to drink it.
Grapes themselves offer only faint clues to the wines they will ultimately produce. The mere fact of producing wine with merlot, a grape in the pantheon, means nothing. Pomerols, made largely with merlot, are among the world’s great wines. The lakes of merlot made elsewhere? Occasionally I find a pretty good bottle. But ultimately, Pomerols and other merlots have little in common.
Chardonnay has played a role in great wines made year after year. But I’ve had far more bad chardonnays than good ones.
I’ve also had far more mediocre than inspiring bottles of aligoté, which is not surprising.
Aligoté would make most lists of roundly despised grapes, often producing thin, acidic wines that were historically spiked with a glug of crème de cassis, rendering the wine palatable as kir.
In Burgundy, few would debate the relative status of chardonnay and aligoté, the two leading white grapes in the region. That’s why chardonnay is planted in the best sites, and aligoté gets whatever is left over. With grapes, site is often destiny.
Nonetheless, these days, some Burgundy vignerons, like Sylvain Pataille in Marsannay and Pierre de Benoist, would argue that if aligoté were given the same love and care as chardonnay, people would be astonished at how good the wines could be.
Wine is so much more than simply the grapes that form its basis. What is poured from the bottle is ultimately a combination of the grapes, the site in which the grapes were grown, the farming, the winemaking, the vintage character, and the intent and skill of the people who oversaw production.
In the same way, selecting a wine requires considering far more than the social standing of grapes. What’s the occasion? What are we eating? What’s the mood and the ambience?
Forty years ago, did anybody recognize the potential of mencía, the main red grape of Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo in northwestern Spain? What about nerello mascalese, the major red grape of the Mount Etna region of Sicily, or carricante, its white counterpart? Or assyrtiko, the white grape of Santorini?
All of these grapes have demonstrated in recent decades that they have the capacity to yield exceptional wines that can age and evolve. They can be beautiful. They may not have the glorious histories of pinot noir or riesling, but their legacies are still being recorded.
I have had wonderful wines made of cinsault. But in her 1986 book, “Vines, Grapes and Wines: A Wine Drinker’s Guide to Grape Varieties,” no less an authority than Jancis Robinson wrote that cinsault had “a rather meaty, chunky sort of flavor, uncomfortably suggestive of dog food to some.”
Decades later, in her 2012 book, “Wine Grapes,” written with Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, cinsault was instead described as an “underrated Mediterranean-loving variety making characterful rosés and flirtatious reds.”
Opinions evolve, at least with open-minded people. I would wager that we still don’t know the potential of dozens of grapes like cinsault. They may be waiting for sympathetic producers like Stefan Vetter, who has demonstrated in the Franken region of Germany that silvaner, often an afterthought among white grapes, can make wines that rival any other for depth and complexity.
I haven’t even mentioned hybrid grapes, varieties created by breeding one species, Vitis vinifera, which comprises all the historic European wine grapes, with another, like Vitis labrusca, a native grape of America.
Hybrids have long been considered lesser grapes, rarely capable of producing compelling wines. Yet cold-climate producers like Deirdre Heekin of La Garagista in Vermont have proven otherwise, making some of the most interesting U.S. wines out of hybrid grapes.
I’m not saying that all grapes have the capacity to make great wines. I have yet to find a Müller-Thurgau worth championing, for example. But I would not want to rule out the possibility.
If the recent history of wine has shown us anything, it is how little we know about the potential of any grapes to make great wines. A caste system for grapes is a backward-looking approach to a world with wonderful possibilities ahead of it.