When we were in our wine infancy—back in the 1970s—most new wine consumers understood that some wines were red, and some wines were white. Occasionally you’d see a wine that was pink, and therefore, you knew it was going to taste sweet.
Jugs of Ernest and Julio Gallo Hearty Burgundy and Carlo Rossi Chablis lined the shelves of liquor stores. They became a staple on dinner tables as the sophisticated beverage of choice to accompany that home-cooked meal. But what was it, exactly, that we were drinking?
We had no idea. But because we could obviously understand that burgundy is a color, and this “Hearty Burgundy” wine was clearly a shade of red, any wine labeled “Burgundy” must be a red wine, right? We know that Chablis isn’t a color, but this jug of Carlo Rossi wine is undoubtably white, so Chablis must be a kind of grape that makes white wine, right? Oh, and Chianti is a grape that makes red wine from Italy, and anything that has bubbles is called Champagne. Glad we have this all figured out.
Except that’s all wrong. Chablis, Chianti, Champagne, Burgundy … these are places.
Wait, what? These are places? Not grapes? But how am I supposed to know what the wine is if only the place is on the label?! You mean I have to learn what grapes are planted where?
When you pick up a bottle of Puligny-Montrachet, nowhere on the label does it say chardonnay. A bottle of Pommard doesn’t proclaim itself to be pinot noir, and you’ll never find a bottle of Barolo or Barbaresco that says it’s made with nebbiolo grapes. And the reason is quite simple: The grapes aren’t that important.
Now, wait … before you close this article to go check Facebook, hear me out.
I’m not saying that the quality of grapes isn’t important, or that how the vineyard is farmed isn’t important. But the concept we nouveau wine drinkers keep missing is that the grape isn’t all that matters. What matters more than anything is the place.
In the middle ages, when grapes were being planted in Burgundy, France, by the Cistercian monks, they realized that this little plot of dirt was different from that little plot of dirt. Therefore, those plots should have different names. Clever monks.
They also realized that these varying soils were special and were going to create wines with very different personalities. And so, in order to highlight this special dirt, the grapes they planted needed to have a fairly neutral flavor profile. They understood that the grapes are merely a catalyst to show what the land tastes like. It was the grapes’ job to let the dirt shine through. In Burgundy, chardonnay and pinot noir are a perfect fit.
I often think about the customers who tell me they don’t drink chardonnay. It seems silly, but this sentiment wounds me. My inner voice starts shouting: “Really?! You won’t drink chardonnay from anywhere? In the whole world?!” As sad as this statement makes me, in a way, I understand. When we learn about wine through the lens of knowing the grape, we naturally have to assume that our preferences are based on what we think that grape tastes like. The assumption is that no matter where the grape is grown, and no matter who the puppet master/winemaker is behind it, the grape is what it is. But this is just profoundly untrue.
Anyone who’s experienced the liquid electricity that chardonnay produces from the region of Chablis understands that the average California chardonnay drinker wouldn’t believe it was the same grape. Conversely, if all I knew about pinot noir was Meiomi or Cherry Pie, I wouldn’t be at all interested in further exploring that grape; it would be a waste of time and money. But then I wouldn’t have tasted the gloriously silky, mineral-laden, richly perfumed incarnation by Hamilton Russell from Walker Bay, South Africa. I would have missed out on a truly beautiful wine, because I failed to recognize the importance of the place.
A few weeks ago, I hosted a syrah tasting. We tasted three syrahs, each from a different country. We began our tasting with the Martin Clerc Syrah from Collines Rhodaniennes in the northern Rhone, France. Weighing in at a modest 12 percent alcohol, it was juicy and fresh, light on its feet and supremely drinkable.
That was followed by the Wonderwall Syrah from the Central Coast of California. A little richer, with 13 1/2 percent alcohol and noticeable aromas from oak, it was undeniably Californian. It offered more upfront flavors and aromas, but showed balance and restraint.
The last wine we tasted was Tyrrell’s “Rufus Stone” Shiraz from Heathcote, Australia. With a whopping 15 percent alcohol, this was by far the biggest, boldest and heaviest of the bunch. A little meaty and spicy with loads of stewed, jammy fruit, it had Australia written all over it.
At the end of the tasting, the attendees couldn’t believe that the same grape could taste so different. Mission accomplished.
So if you’re up for a little homework, I encourage you to re-discover a wine you don’t like. Think merlot’s not your bag? Grab a bottle from St. Emilion, France. Don’t care for zinfandel? Try a bottle of Primitivo from Italy. Dislike pinot grigios? Look for one from the Alpine region of Alto Adige—or better yet, try a pinot grigio with some skin-contact, also known as an orange wine. Line up a pinot noir from Oregon, one from Burgundy, and a Chilean version, and breathe in the differences.
Who knows? You might discover you love pinot grigio. You might find that you hate Primitivo even more than other zinfandels. But you’ll never know unless you give it go.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with two decades in the wine industry. She can be reached at email@example.com.