Home Food & Wine The Gentleman’s Cellar: Varietal Deja Vu

The Gentleman’s Cellar: Varietal Deja Vu

A lot has changed since the glory days of wine-as-varietal in the 1980s and 1990s. The pioneers from California, Australia, armed with their virgin wine consumers, seized an opportunity and reformed the very genealogy of vine varieties and terroir. Indeed the relationship between vine origins and winegrowing regions themselves has woven many new ideas into the dogma of wine in general. Is Burgundy still the ‘home’ of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir? More and more frequently the lines between old and new world wine seem ridiculous: there are trends in California of lean, high acid Chardonnays and white Burgundy of 14.5% Alcohol and 200% new oak is no oddity. Returning to the basics in this situation seems prudent. Not to drag back the old style stereotypes, however, but  to refresh our perspectives. Imagine you walk into your wine store to find a display of French Malbec with trendy labels, no mention of Argentina or Cahors to be found. Knowledge is now your deep breath of fresh air.

  • Chardonnay and White Burgundy – for decades made in every style in every corner of the world, yet maintains a basic flavor profile that is as recognizable as ever. If we could remember how to mature it now that so many age worthy examples are out there it may once again enjoy a renaissance.
  • Shiraz/Syrah and Rhone – with many southern Rhone wines burdened by too much syrah in the blend, and many heavily ripe grapes (already very tannic) laden with heavy oak burdens, many syrahs have dark futures ahead. There is still room for the spicy, peppery style and the basket of fruit style, though, and as the massive plantings of the last decade get older there will be many emerging syrah vineyards for years to come.
  • Sauvignon Blanc and Sancerre – New Zealand has long explored every nook and cranny of fresh grass, cat pee and grapefruit, endlessly cramming all 3 into the boldest expression possible. The copycats fail miserably, but the secret for this grape lies in the intense prodigal minerality from French and South African versions.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux – Bordeaux has been like a racehorse skidding to a stop before sliding off a cliff, and with its great profits is producing wines of unparalleled richness, structure and yet still class. The rest of the world has long gone over the edge, and the future direction of Bordeaux is unknown, especially if climate change is indeed at the helm. If a generation raised on vegetable health culture ever discovers the dormant vegetal flavors that winemakers work so hard to eliminate in Cabernet, this varietal is well poised for the future indeed.
  • Malbec and Cahors – Now in the gloaming phase of its trendiness,  cheap Malbec can be a risky proposition. Or expensive Malbec for that matter. Maybe part of the problem is that the grape lacks a truly unique defining characteristic, and unsurprisingly most examples end up as being describable as simply strong red wine. The idea that the surge in popularity has been based on the ease of pronunciation is worth contemplating. Of course the good ones will eventually rekindle our interest by their agreeability and unique adoption in the most specific of terroir, just like the cousin Merlot.

What future varietals will be added to lists like this is perhaps a question that will never be answered, as an era of associating flavors by region will undoubtedly return eventually. Another possibility for the future is that we may experience a glut not of single trendy varietals but of every varietal imaginable, as consumers finally realize that bad wine is almost non-existent in today’s marketplace. Grabbing a random bottle near the cashier of Furmint from Madagascar could be the consumer mentality, as long as the importers and retailers continue to be accountable to their customers. Either way, we can look to be drinking wine that challenges the traditions but also redefines them for a long time yet.