California's Noble Varietals
"A noble variety is one capable of giving outstanding wine under proper conditions, and better-than-average wine wherever planted, within reason...A noble wine is one that will be recognized as remarkable, even by a novice."--Frank Schoonmaker's Encyclopedia of Wine 1964
European wines have historically been identified by the locales of their origin. The French appellation controllée system defined regions where the country's most distinguished wines were grown, and enacted rules regarding the choice(s) of grape varieties to be allowed, the yield per hectare (2.5 acres), and in some cases, the minimum alcohol allowed. Consumers would have a reasonable expectation of what a wine from a certain place might taste like.
That's how the world came to appreciate regionally-named wines like Champagne, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Beaujolais, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Vouvray, and Cötes de Provence.
But in the 1930s, after Prohibition had ravaged the California wine industry, importer and author Frank Schoonmaker was a believer that for California to make great wine, its vintners should strive to make varietal wine--that is, wines labeled by their majority grape variety. We know them as Petite Sirah, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and so on. At the time there was little taste for dry wines, and most of them were generic blends. It would be an uphill battle.
Up until that time, American wineries, desperate for customers during the cocktail era, often stole those famous European place-names for their jug wines. That's how we got the names Burgundy, Chianti, Sauterne, Chablis, Johannisberg Riesling, Port, Sherry and cheap Champagne on bottles of domestic wine. Not only was this practice downright deception--tantamount to counterfeit labeling--it has confused consumers to this very day who still have to be told that Champagne and Chablis are regions in France, and that bottle marked "California Champagne" in your grocery store is a fake. (That's also why you can still find great Chablis from Chablis for much less than you'll pay for comparable white Burgundies from the Côte-d'Or.)
Sense of Place vs. Varietal Character
The European place-named system of winemaking uses the expression of place as the template for the winemaker. Although Gevrey-Chambertin is made of Pinot Noir, the winemaker's aim is to make a wine that tastes like Gevrey-Chambertin.
A Russian River vintner, on the other hand, aims to make the best expression of Pinot Noir he can. The place he grows it in--Russian River Valley--is because he thinks the finest Pinot Noir can be made there.
That's how varietals in this country keep getting bigger and bigger flavored, with more aggressive character as each new decade brings a new crop of winemakers eager to make their mark.
Schoonmaker knew that some grape varieties would thrive better than others in California's diverse climates. Yet there must have been varietal ideals, a sort of hierarchy of excellence, rolling around his head.
When one thinks of the greatest wines of Europe--noble wines--a few places stand above the rest: red and white Burgundy, red Bordeaux, Sauternes, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Hermitage, Barolo, Porto, Tokaji Azsu, Sherry, German Riesling--it is natural to want to try to re-create them wherever you live, whether Australia, South Africa, Argentina or Napa Valley. Wine 101 classes teach you which varieties go into each famous wine:
Mosel & Rhine Germany--Riesling
Red Burgundy--Pinot Noir
Red Bordeaux--Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, etc.
Champagne--Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier
Porto--Tinta Francesco, Tinta Cao, Sazao, etc.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape--Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, etc.
Sauternes--Semillon & Sauvignon Blanc
You'll notice, some great wines need to be blended to be great, while others achieve greatness with single varieties. And nearly all these wines stand the test of time, evolving in the cellar as a measure of their greatness.
The question then jumps out, if a variety needs to be blended with other grapes to make great wine, is it a noble grape? Is the Cabernet Sauvignon of Bordeaux, for example, noble by itself?
Noble There, Not Here
What about a variety like Chenin Blanc that makes some of Europe's greatest wines when grown in the Loire Valley, timeless, ageless. Chenin makes pretty good wine in South Africa, where it is often called Steen, but makes pleasant and forgettable wines in the U.S. Is Chenin Blanc a noble grape? Depends.
What about Sauvignon Blanc? Delicious examples can be found in the Loire's Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, pretty good wines in Italy, New Zealand, Chile and South Africa, but struggles to be great in California. And I argue, the varietal ages poorly, developing strange aromas. I love 'em young.
The issue of portability--Cabernet Sauvignon comes to mind--where a grape variety can make excellent, ageable wines not only in Bordeaux (when blended), but in Napa Valley, Argentina and Australia. A great case can be made for the nobility of the varietal on these grounds. The same can be said for Chardonnay, perhaps the world's most popular varietal.
Riesling, championed in the dry style in Australia, Austria and Alsace, has been known to make worthy, and only occasionally great wines there. Germany, though, is another story, where Riesling is not only the country's greatest white wine, but according to author and Master of Wine Jancis Robinson, the world's greatest white wine. And German Riesling ages, can be made great and balanced at any sweetness level, reflect its terroir, and accompany just about any food you throw at it besides Mediterranean food.
There are varieties that can make long lasting, profound wines there but not here. Nebbiolo in Barolo. Semillon in Sauternes. Mourvedre in Bandol. Malmsey and Bual in Madeira. None of these grapes make as great a wine elsewhere.
Syrah makes noble wine in Hermitage, and delicious wines many places, but it is a fickle grape which didn't rate its own varietal in California until Joseph Phelps did it in 1972.
And then there is Pinot Noir. The queen of red wines. Fickle doesn't even begin to describe "the Heartbreak grape". Capable of haunting aromas and flavors so profound in Burgundy, is that enough alone to declare it a "noble" grape?
The Noble Four
When I first became acquainted with wine in the early 19070s, I read somewhere that the four noble varietals were:
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Pinot Noir
Those were the four varieties Stuart and Charlie Smith planted at Napa Valley's Smith Madrone in the early 1970s. (Pinot Noir was eliminated when it was decided their Spring Mountain vineyard couldn't give them world-class fruit.)
Some wine writers will also include Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Syrah on that list, but all such lists include these four.
That is why we dreamed up a Friday night tasting celebrating these four grape varieties for our first Noble Varietals of America tasting on May 18. Our American wine buyer Chris Costales will be selecting the best California, Oregon or Washington wines he can find and showcase them that evening. Cost is just $45 per person. Call (562) 597-8303 for reservations.
WINE 101 SERIES
THE NOBLE VARIETALS OF AMERICA:
CABERNET SAUVIGNON, PINOT NOIR, CHARDONNAY & RIESLING
Friday May 18, 2018 $45 tax incl
Join our North American wine buyer Chris Costales as he introduces three brilliant examples of the traditional "noble" varietals of America. Not only will this be a great introduction to wine for beginners, but a delicious tasting for everyone. Prepare to fall in love with wine again.
SEATING LIMITED—RESERVATIONS REQUIRED
Call (562) 597-8303