Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
August 7, 2011
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the fair Juliet opines that a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.
That 400-year-old passage came to mind during a recent dinner conversation about grapes and their names. The wine that prompted the discussion was a Penfolds 2007 St. Henri Shiraz from Australia. As it was being poured to pair with a perfect portion of prosciutto wrapped pork (alliteration alert!), an Australian sitting at the table asked “Are there any other grapes like Shiraz and Syrah that are called different things in different places?”
Good question. One slightly skewed from the usual “Why do the Aussies call Syrah, Shiraz?” query that is more frequently posed.
As I thought about it, in that way that contestants on Jeopardy search the nether regions of their brains for a quick answer (or, as is the case in Jeopardy, a quick question) I blurted out “Mourvedre and Mataro.” I was referring to the dark red grape that is a component of Chateauneuf-du-Pape in France, a native to Spain and is now popular is the New World.
Though I didn’t want to seem the know-it-all, I could easily have added “Monastrell,” another name used for the grape in Spain. In fact, according to the Vitis International Variety Catalogue, I could have used any of 89 other synonyms and been technically correct in my answer. Take that Alex Trebek.
By some estimates, as many as 10,000 different grape varieties are used globally to produce wine. Keeping track of the grapes and their names is the mission of “The Institute for Grapevine Breeding” in Siebeldingen, Germany, which administers the Vitis International Variety Catalogue (www.vivc.de/index.php ).
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This is the world’s most extensive database of the species, varieties and cultivators of wine grapes. Available to anyone on the internet since 1996, it has more than 18,000 entries.
As I went through some of the more well-known grape varieties, attempting to find other cases like Syrah and Shiraz where a single grape is known by different names, a number of examples popped up.
Take Zinfandel. Perhaps best known for wines made in California where it was planted by pioneers during the Gold Rush of the 1850s, Zinfandel was long thought to be as American as it gets. But as DNA analysis of grape varieties came into vogue, studies were made at the University of California at Davis that showed Zinfandel is, in fact, exactly the same as an Italian grape named Primitivo. And beyond that, it was discovered that both Zinfandel and Primitivo are perfectly matched to a Croation grape called Crljenak Ka_telanski (pronounced: Crljenak Ka_telanski) All three grapes are the same. Just as Syrah and Shiraz are the same.
The European Union says that a wine made with Primitivo grapes can be bottled and sold as Zinfandel if it suits the maker, essentially saying that the two names are synonyms. Here in the U.S. however, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which legislates alcohol sales, still differentiates between the two grapes. As a result you can buy a California Primitivo from Uvaggio made with Lodi, California, fruit that is genetically the same as, say, a Klinker Brick Zinfandel from the same region.
Chenin Blanc, a high acid white wine from the Loire Valley of France is another example. A white wine staple in South Africa, there they call the grapes Steen. In Italy, they call the white wine mutation of the Pinot Noir grape, Pinot Grigio while German wines from the same grape are sometimes referred to as Ruländer. And in France, the grape’s country of origin, there are a several names used to describe what we know to be Pinot Gris. The VIVC, referenced above, says there are 179 synonyms for Pinot Gris.
The point is that many, if not most, grapes have different names in different parts of the world. But the vast majority of wines are sold and marketed globally under the names you’ll recognize, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, etc., rather than the regional versions of the same.
And then there is Shiraz and Syrah.
While the reasons why the Aussies call the grape Shiraz have to do with a muddy misnomer about the grape’s origination in the ancient Persian city of Shiraz, a theory has been since debunked by DNA evidence to the contrary, it is a good thing that the variation exists. Not only does it create fodder for columnists, but as the French say “Vive La difference!”
And, to paraphrase Juliet, a wine by any other name would taste just as sweet.