WineInk: The Name Game
The wide world of grapes
Chardonnay. Yes, it is a French word for a grape that we are so familiar with that the name trips lightly off the tongue. Same is true with Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. But, what about Gewürztraminer? Or Assyrtiko? Try a little Blaufränkisch, or maybe a floral Arnei. These, too, are the names of popular wine grapes, but they are not only a little less well-known, they are also a lot harder to say. And, that may be one reason people get intimidated about wine. It can be a hard learn, especially if the names of the wines are Greek to you. Or Spanish or Hungarian.
There are thousands of grape varieties, made into wines throughout the world, and the majority of us only know of a few of the most popular by name. The vitis vinifera varieties of European grapes are clearly the best known, but, today, a number of hybrid grape varieties gaining popularity are making it even harder to keep track of all the grapes that actually are utilized in the production of wine.
It can be overwhelming. Add to that: The grapes that have similar DNA but have different names in different places. I encountered this situation not long ago when I made a mistake in identifying a wine for a friend.
“I don’t like Pinot Grigio,” my friend said with formidable defiance when I gifted her with a bottle of Pinot Gris from New Zealand.
“It’s not the same,” I replied, hoping to get her to at least try the wine. “It’s a different grape,” I said, inaccurately, thinking in my mind that the versions of Italian Pinot Grigio with their bright acidity and drier style, and this richer, more minerally wine from the Marlborough wine region were two different wines indeed.
Ah, but not half a minute went by before I was called on my mistake.
“Yes,” an eavesdropper quickly and correctly pointed out. “Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are the same grape from different places.”
They just wear different clothing. Not only was my mistake laid bare, but the recipient of my gift was promptly assured that she would not like this wine. This, of course, will be the last time I try to do a good deed and expose others to tasty wines while exposing my own lack of clarity on a grape.
Yes, Pinot Grigio — the increasingly popular summer wine that hails from the northeastern part of Italy in the Lombardi, Alto Adige, and Friuli-Venezia regions — matches the DNA of Pinot Gris. Pinot Gris is prized in the Alsace region of eastern France for its lush and smooth-mouth feel and the slightly sweet, slightly spicy flavor components that it delivers. Personally, I prefer the more complex flavors associated with the Pinot Gris wines. And, yes, they can all taste quite different depending upon the maker, the style, and, of course, their source.
But, as is often the case, a wine conundrum leads to other aspects of thinking about the greater wine world. So, my attention turned to grapes that are called by different names in different places.
You likely know the most obvious: Shiraz. Yes, it is the same grape as Syrah. But, in Australia and France, where the respective names are used to describe the grape that likely has its origins in a third place, Persia (now known as Iran), the wines produced from the grape can be very different.
If you have tried both Syrah and Shiraz, you know how different they can taste. In the hands of the Aussies, the grape can be big, brawny, fruity, and bold as the Barossa Valley sun and soil. Iterations from France, especially from the rocks of the Rhône, can reflect both the cooler climate and the precise sensibilities of their winemakers. The wines can be a bit more reserved, and, though the grape is by nature robust, it is also elegant on the palate. Either way, the wines produced from Syrah/Shiraz can be different, though still delicious.
California Zinfandel and the Primitivo grape found in Southern Italy are another example of grapes with a different name but a shared genetic history. Actually, the origin of both grapes is Croatia where, if it can actually be found, is called Crljenak Kaštelanski. Yes, Zinfandel is much easier to say.
There are those who swear that, planted side by side, the two grapes will produce completely different sized clusters and sizes of grapes. But, in 2001, the great Dr. Carole Meredith, a former geneticist at the University of California at Davis, identified the Croatian, Californian, and the Italian grape as all having the same DNA. I wonder if you sent in grapes from all three, grown in their homelands, to 23 and Me, the DNA testing firm for humans, the same match could be found. Ah, progress.
There are other examples of grapes that are known in one place as one thing and are then called something completely different elsewhere. One man’s Mourvèdre, say a Frenchman’s, is a Spaniard’s Monastrell – specifically, a Spaniard from the hotter than Hades region of Jumilla in the south of Spain. If you were to travel to Catalonia, east and north of Jumilla, while still in Spain, plantings of the grape would be under the moniker of Mataró. And, yet, the grape is the same. It is just that various regions, all of them suited to the grape, have colloquial uses that identify the grape as theirs.
The same is true for the Grenache/Garnacha debate. In the southern Rhône, Grenache, as it is called, is prized as one of the main grapes in the great Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, while the old vines in Priorat make it the region’s most widely planted grape.
The point is, though there are numerous wines and grapes out there, some with different or hard to pronounce names, wine drinkers should not be intimidated by the multitude of options that abound. After all, they are just grapes. Trying them is the only way to find out if you actually like any one better than another.
Palacios Remondo La Montesa 2018
Sometimes you need a port in a storm. This past week, I found myself stranded at the Denver Airport during the October snows and needed the refuge of a glass of wine – in this case a 100% Garnacha from the esteemed Spanish winemaker Alvaro Palacios grown in Monte Yerga in Rioja.
The “port” was the convivial wine bar CRU in concourse B near the gates numbered in the 50s. If you find yourself delayed, it is the perfect spot to wait it out with a glass of wine and your cell phone. There are a number of by the glass selections and flights from around the globe with cute groupings like “Drawing a Blanc” (Sauvignon Blanc) or Pinot Envy, no description required. My La Montesa was spicy and a bit chewy with hints and bits of vanilla and a slightly sweet finish. A fine companion for an unintended layover.