One of the more important features in my tasting book—Message in the Bottle: A Guide to Tasting Wine is the lists of grape variety descriptions, which range from the tried and true Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay, to more obscure and esoteric entries like Melon de Bourgogne, Carignan, and Pinotage.
While many in the industry and consumers probably welcomed these detailed descriptions, I’m waiting for the inevitable naysayers to appear. When they do, they’ll vociferously complain about the exact way I describe the grapes and wines. Their argument being that this kind of specificity and precision is an illusion and doesn’t exist. That the grapes and wines I list in the book have changed, are changing at the moment, and will continue to change in the future due to global warming.
To which I respond, all true. There are precious few things about wine that are precise.
Wines that are called “classic” have been made from specific grapes in specific places for a long time. Hence the term itself which implies a lengthy track record of quality. What these classic wines also tend to display is a commonality of style sometimes marked by vintage variation caused by changes in weather patterns during the growing season—the result of climate change.
Teaching and learning classic wines have been one of the mainstays of formal industry education for as long as it’s been taught. Over the years, students pursuing various wine certifications have had to study reams of geography about major growing regions around the globe and then learn the respective grape varieties and wines.
I’ve taught tasting at every level for over three decades. It breaks down into defining dozens of terms that describe what’s in the glass and then using a tasting grid of some kind to organize said terms along with a ream of other sensory information. The sum total is daunting for any student. Chunking down the information into manageable bits is important for the instructor. And being able to explain things so an eight-year-old can understand them, as the great physicist Richard Feynman once said, is key. Otherwise, the amount of information can be overwhelming for the student.
Learning so-called markers for dozens of classic grapes and wines has long been part of any wine curriculum and mandatory to become a competent professional taster. It’s also one of the main reasons why the learning curve for wine involves a duration of time and a great deal of tasting practice. That said, to the detractors’ point, are these variety descriptions consistent to the extent that they can be universally found, much less taught? The answer is … sort of. Many descriptions of the classics include impact compounds germane to a specific grape variety or family of grapes from which the wine in question was made. An example would be pyrazines for Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon-family red wines. Or terpene/floral qualities for aromatic white grapes/wines such as Gewürztraminer, Muscat, and Viognier. Aromas and flavors from winemaking techniques such as lees contact, malolactic fermentation/conversation, and the use of oak also come into play. There are over a dozen of these so-called impact compounds that delimit specific grapes and wines. It’s imperative for students learn to them.
It’s with structure and fruit ripeness and quality that the naysayers can have their day. Climate change continues to wreak havoc in vineyard regions around the globe. The rise in average temperature is causing the annual life cycle of vines to be pushed forward with harvest now weeks earlier than it once was in many regions. More important, violent swings in weather patterns create drought conditions and destructive fires followed by heavy rains and flooding. No surprise that vintage variation is now seems to be the rule and not the exception for many places, including some considered to be classic. Warmer temps also mean riper grapes which results in higher alcohol in the bottle along with less natural acidity and the possible need for acidulation. Over-ripe and even stewed/cooked fruit is also often found.
What does it all mean in regards to the descriptions I use for classic wines in the book much less the way I write about them and teach them? It means that going forward, flexibility needs to be part of the system. I still believe these descriptions are relevant and important. They will continue to serve as valuable learning tools for some time, despite the fact that climate change will persist in altering the character of places and respective wines around the world.
In the end, there are times when I think the lexicon we use for teaching classic wines is like a huge stretch of ice floating in the Arctic. During my time in the business, the ice has begun to break apart with various bits—classic styles of wines—drifting away. What the grapescape will look like in 10 or 20 years has yet to be determined. In the meantime, we still need standards to teach and examine students, and to be able to judge wine quality as professionals. Varietal wine descriptions will remain as one of the most important facets of any wine curricula. Otherwise, we have little commonality with which to communicate about wine, one of life’s most delightful shared hallucinations.
*Final thought and shameless request. If you’ve purchased and/or read Message in the Bottle: A Guide to Tasting Wine, please do me a favor and leave a glowing five-star review on Amazon. It would be much appreciated. Gracias! Click here to leave your review.