What You Won’t See on the Label
Let’s peer into the secrets of the grape varieties, to get at the idiosyncrasies
that lie beneath their skins . . .
Chardonnay: Some winemakers go at their chardonnay like cosmetic
surgeons, nipping and tucking and firming and inflating well beyond
what Nature’s already given the grape. Such wines put us in mind of a
wonderfully funny wine cartoon by the inimitable Ronald Searle—entitled
‘‘exceptionally full-bodied,’’ an awe-inspiring and quite gravitydefying
pair of breasts protrudes from a bottle, spilling abundantly
over the label’s best efforts to serve as impromptu brassiere. These
kinds of wines were once, almost quaintly, described as ‘‘Dolly Parton
wines.’’ Perhaps it’s time for the pop-cultural allusion to be updated,
and what could serve better than ‘‘Pamela Anderson wines’’—considering
that chardonnay made in this style bears as much resemblance to
the best offerings of Burgundy as Pammy does to a real woman.
Riesling: Frequently the ugly duckling. Difficult and recalcitrant in
youth, by turns secretive and acerbic, like many an adolescent. But
given time and careful keeping, can blossom breathtakingly.
Semillon: Ditto. Very much dissed as a dry table wine varietal,
everywhere but Australia’s Hunter Valley. Then its transformation can
be as magical as riesling’s. And, as with riesling, is a superior variety
from which to make stickies (though sem-based stickies can, to our
tastes at least, tend at times towards the cloying—think Shirley Temple
at her most egregiously cutesy).
Sauvignon Blanc: Like a Tarantino film—difficult to take seriously,
and too often a caricature of itself. (This, it should be admitted, is the opinion
of only one of the authors. The other is more than partial to the odd New
World sav b, or a nice Sancerre.)
Chenin Blanc: At its best, an excellent Vouvrey sec for instance, this
grape is all crispness and zing—like taking a bite out of a barely ripe
green apple then sucking on a river stone. At its less than best (and
that’s a wide and unstimulating palette, excuse the pun)—as tightlipped,
inscrutable and neutral as a Swiss banker.
The Rh^one White trio—viognier, marsanne, roussanne: Diverting as
solo acts, delightful singing together. At times, however, they want to
hang out with red varieties too often, bunk in with the shiraz, grenache
and mourv edre (viognier is particularly guilty of this). Is this a delusion
of grandeur, some kind of identity disorder, or is it just, as some
insightful sommelier put to us one night—‘‘every white wine really
wants to be red!’’
Pinot Gris/Grigio: The yin and yang variety. As Alsatian gris it
offers rich creaminess and a gravitas befitting the gray tinge for which
it’s named, shot through with ashen yellow that calls to mind a
dissolving bruise or a Turner sky. By contrast, Italian grigio is a lighttripping
siren of a wine. In the New World, this character of multiple
personalities turns somewhat pathological, as confusion over style
makes for some schizophrenic wines.
Gr€uner Veltliner: The current cult fave of sommeliers everywhere. If
a wine waiter offers you a blind sip of white, it’s odds on you’re being
treated to Austria’s soon-to-be-not-so-recherch e variety.
Albari~no: Wants to love you with seafood, in its Spanish manner.
Trebbiano: The good-time grape. Famously promiscuous, not to say
ubiquitous. Turns up all over the place going by all manner of names.
White hermitage, ugni blanc, castello, Saint Emilion, beau, thalia, russola,
the list goes on and on . . . You mightn’t know you’ve had it but
rest assured you have.
Pinot Noir: What’s to be said about the winemakers’ Holy Grail? It can
be without peer, the most endlessly beguiling of wines. At the other end of
the spectrum, beetroot juice adulterated with urine would be a preferable
beverage. What other wine could be like sticking your face into a lavender
bush, a jar of plum jam, a handful of fresh-picked mushrooms and a
cowpat—or all of these together? At its best, overwhelming in its elegance.
What You Won’t See on the Label 49
At its all-too-frequently-and-greatly-disappointingly-less-than-best, well,
to call it insipid would be an insult to the genuinely spineless.
Shiraz: It rules!
Cabernet Sauvignon: Smokers of the world take note—ordering the
right cabernet might well be the only way left to enjoy the heady scent
of tobacco in a restaurant.
Merlot: Pomerol aside, this classic variety (which blends so well
with cabernet sauvignon and in so doing testifies elegantly to the Gestalt
psychologist’s cry ‘‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’’)
is in danger of becoming (if it hasn’t already) the alco-pop of the wine
world. That’s as much the fault of unadventurous middle-of-the-palate
drinkers as it is of makers and marketers perpetuating the ‘‘inoffensive’’
style—demand, after all, has to cop some of the same stick as
Cabernet Franc: When blended, this grape is a little like your kindergarten
teacher (or perhaps like a dominatrix, if your kindergarten
teacher was anything like Miss Anderson)—it imposes a taut restraint
and discipline on the occasionally willful excesses of cab sav and merlot.
This inclination to check unruliness and urge a little temperance
perhaps comes from its parental status over its more famous cabernet
progeny, sired on sauvignon blanc. When unblended—in the Loire and
increasingly in parts of the New World—it’s the epitome of structure
and austerity. Still, in seeming ungiving it is not ungenerous—merely
demanding that its imbiber tease out the pleasures on offer from less
obvious hints than other varieties provide.
Malbec: When decked out in the sky blue and white of Los Pumas,
can be an absolute belter—think of the Argentinean rugby pack scrummaging
on your tongue. When from most other parts of the winegrowing
world, more often than not a filler, a wallflower, not riveting on its
own but there to make its company look more interesting.
Zinfandel: The red grape with Dissociative Identity Disorder.
Spawned in Croatia, leaving its twin Primitivo in Puglia, Italy, it traveled
to New England where it earned the named Black St. Peters,
before becoming a modern staple of California. Zin’s not entirely sure
when it wants to ripen (tight green unready berries will share a bunch,
literally hang cheek by jowl, with grapes that have reached plump purple
perfection). Sometimes zin frocks up in party-girl pink (so-called
‘‘white zinfandel’’ must feel like the labor that Hercules always held
was his hardest—cross-dressing and taking on women’s chores for his
sins). It can be frat-boy boisterous, as complex as a professor of Heideggerian
ontology, or at its heaviest heavyweight can intimidate like a
professional wrestler (whose signature move would surely be called
Nebbiolo: The nebbia, a thick fog, rolls in over the hills of Piedmont
when the grapes are finally ripening. Perhaps it hides the secrets of
50 The Psychology of Wine
creating great nebbiolo from the rest of the world. On the old maps,
fog-swathed stretches were marked ‘‘Here be monsters’’ . . . and monsters
well and truly are the great wines of Barolo and Barbaresco.
Sangiovese: A wine that grows wise as it ages, and may well end up
entirely changing its nature. In youth it can dominate with the weight
of a cabernet, even having the tendency to be a bit of a bully. With maturity,
however, it has learned the subtle skills of seduction, and can
entrance with the sublimity of older pinot.
Tempranillo: Ol e!!!
What You Won’t See on the Label