Category Archives: Wine Grapes

Why No Grape Names?

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“Why don’t the French put grape names on their wine labels?  It’s so confusing.”  A familiar comment – and one I heard again at a tasting I ran recently. 

I can fully understand the view; grape names (or the 20 or so most popular ones, at least) are recognised by most customers buying wine and they know what to expect when they pick up a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Chardonnay or a Pinot Grigio.  But, when they’re faced with a wine labelled ‘Chiroubles’ or ‘Cairanne’, things aren’t so straightforward.  Sadly, there’s no easy solution.2013-11-18 10.29.53

These – and many other French (and Italian and Spanish) wines – are labelled after the place they come from, not the grape (or grapes) they’re made from.  There’s a good reason for this: in most of the traditional winemaking areas of Europe, there’s a very strong attachment to the land (as anyone who has ever been stuck in a traffic jam behind a French farmers’ protest will confirm!)  So, it’s not just the grape variety that is important, it’s the soil, the climate, the slope of the land, the traditions of the area – all contribute to the taste in the bottle.  The French call this ‘terroir’.  And, given that, why would they single out just the grape name to put on the label when it’s the place and all it offers that makes the wine what it is?

Compare that to much of the New World, where things are very different: particularly in Australia, it’s quite normal to blend grapes grown in different areas, even different States.  So, without the same link to a place, why not use the grape name to sell your wine?  The fact that it’s easier for customers is simply a bonus – one that’s been the foundation of the great New World wine success story over the last 30 years or so.

It may seem strange, but I can’t see the French changing anytime soon.  Terroir is vital to them and so it will remain.  For the rest of us, it’s just a case of learning which grapes make which wine (or, sometimes, checking the back label). 

(For those who are interested, the Chiroubles I mentioned earlier uses the Gamay grape, whereas the Cairanne is likely to be a mixture including Grenache, Syrah – aka Shiraz – and probably several other local varieties).

The Fall and Rise of Viognier

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“Viognier was close to extinction in 1980 when Yalumba pioneered a renaissance of this rare, exotic and alluring variety” – so reads the back label of a delightful example of the grape from Australia’s Eden Valley (currently on offer at Waitrose for £9.74, usually £12.99).Yalumba Viognier

It’s not in doubt that there were only a few acres of Viognier remaining at one time. However, Oz Clarke and Margaret Rand in their book “Grapes & Wines” (Webster’s, 2001) suggest that the low point was rather earlier (1965) and attribute the revival elsewhere – crediting either Josh Jensen of Calera in California or the ‘king of Beaujolais’, Georges Duboeuf. Personally, I don’t mind who ensured the grape’s survival – it’s a fascinating and distinctive variety and deserves to be around.

But, how did it get into such a perilous state? It’s a grape that is native to the tiny northern Rhône Appellation of Condrieu and, for many years, it was grown there and virtually nowhere else. The vineyards of Condrieu are perched on impossibly steep granite slopes overlooking the Rhône making any work in the vineyard both difficult and dangerous. Not surprisingly, as transport in the region improved, many growers abandoned their vines and sought work in nearby Lyon instead. Indeed, in one year, just 2500 bottles were made from the variety.

Without getting into the debate about who engineered its revival, the prospects for Viognier have been transformed and the grape is now thriving with major plantings in the south of France, California and Australia as well as in the vineyards of its native Rhône.

So, what’s so special about it? At its best, it has a wonderful aromatic perfume – think apricots, peaches and exotic spices – and a full, rich and mouth-filling taste not quite like anything else. It goes perfectly with gently spicy or creamy dishes. For a real treat, ask your local independent wine merchant if they have any Condrieu (expect to pay £30 plus a bottle); otherwise, the example from Yalumba that prompted this blog should convince any doubters.