Vino Variations

Jun 26, 2009

“There are few agricultural crops whose products are subtly diverse as those of the grape vine, Vitis vinifera. … from global variations between wines in different continents, to the local difference between adjacent vineyards…” – Tim Unwin, Wine and the Vine

Tim Unwin has a point. Wine is diverse but that’s the pleasure of discovering its beauty and complexity.

Pick up a tomato at the grocery store. Hold it in your hand, and see the different shades of red, the different shapes and varieties like Roma, Beefsteak and Vine-grown. But inside, no matter the variety, we know it will still taste like a tomato. By any other name….

Pick up a bottle of wine – you can never be a hundred percent sure. What has gone on behind the scenes to make the wine? What kind of soil were the grapes grown in (some soils can give a wine a flinty character as in Pouilly-Fumé), what was the climate like (cooler for whites – Germany and New Zealand, warmer for reds – Australia and California) and the weather variations during the year (heavy rain at harvest dilutes the grapes and makes the resulting wine thin)?

But that is just the vineyard side. What about the winery? How were the grapes pressed? When – early in the harvest or late? If late, the wine might be richer.

Then there are the techniques used in the winery from steel fermentation (fermenting the wine in temperature controlled containers), carbonic maceration (just throwing the red grapes in, not pressing them, letting them ferment), and the different yeast strains to assist in the process (different strains can bring out different flavours in the wine). A bottle of wine, unlike the growth of a tomato, is really the result of thousands of decisions made, some creative, some economic, some innovative, others arbritary.

I suppose this is the reason why I don’t have a favourite bottle. I want to try everything from everywhere. You can spend an entire lifetime learning about wine and still discover something new every time you open a bottle.

My brother and I were talking about this one evening when he tried to determine whether I had a favourite wine. He noticed I was always bringing home something different.

We talked about his friends, Yellowtail buyers who go to the liquor store with the Kangaroo-logo in mind. The familiar is comforting; you can’t blame them when it comes to wine. Wine can be not only diverse but incredibly confusing.

For instance, take a variety like Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet is universal in the world of wine. It is planted just about everywhere wine-bearing grapes are found (well, maybe not Germany, it’s a bit cold there and Cabernet needs a warmer climate to mature and ripen). It’s very much at home is Bordeaux, France but there is also California Cabernet, Chilean Cabernet, Australian Cabernet, Canadian Cabernet. There is even Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon. Which one to choose?

Good question to ask but not so easy to answer. Consider that the same grape would most likely make the same kind of wine around the world. And it usually does. Cabernet is high in tannins (the constituent of a red wine that has a mouth-drying effect) and usually associated with a blackcurrant flavour.

There are country variations. Chilean Cabernets often possess bell-pepper and cedar wood notes. In France, Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux will be blended with Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc so with blackcurrant notes, you’ll get pencil shavings and maybe cocoa (from the Merlot). In Australia, especially in Coonawarra, you’ll often find hints of mint and eucalyptus, sometimes menthol.

California Cabernet can be full-bodied, with ripe notes of dried sage, dust and rich dark fruit but this also depends on the price. (I know, I know, there are so many ‘buts’ in buying wine.) A cheap California Cabernet will most likely come from vineyards with high yields; that is, a lot of grape berries on the vine. Bulk wines are produced from high-yielding vineyards. The more grapes from a grape bunch, the more likely the pressed juice will be thin and lacking in nuance. A premium California Cabernet will have a bigger price tag because the vineyard will have lower yields as growers will prune back excess grapes. The vine, pruned back, will concentrate on the remaining grapes, imparting the most flavour and complexity.

Buying a bottle of wine isn’t easy. It’s truly about experimenting, choosing three to four Cabernet Sauvignons from three to four different countries, then making a comparison. The next step is to choose Cabernet Sauvignons from the same country and compare again. If you really want the challenge, buy a few Cabernet Sauvignon from the same region, i.e. Napa Valley or Maipo in Chile.

And then there’s the question about aging. Not only will you find a variety of vintages at the wine store but keep in mind that Southern Hemisphere wines from South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand all have their harvests between February and May. A 2007 New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will be six months older than a French, American and Canadian Sauvignon Blanc of the same year. The vintage date is always the year of harvest.

Other brand wines or what I call prêt-à-boire, (ready to drink) and prêt-à-porter (ready to carry), will not substantially improve over time. Some maybe wines will get better after two to three years, four at the most. (In the Oxford Companion to Wine, under AGEING, there is a substantial list of wines that are not known to improve after a long time in bottle. Not surprisingly, boxed wine or bag-in-the-box.)

Basically Yellowtail, like any number of huge wineries – i.e. the size of oil-refineries - are known to be consistent by giving the customer the same kind of product year after year like a hamburger franchise. The Pinot Grigio 2007 and the Chardonnay 2007 from either Lindemann’s or Yellowtail will be the same in 2008 and 2009. These wines are meant to be ‘popped and poured’ as James Laube, an editor at Wine Spectator said about modern wines.

While the French depend on vintage, a good or bad year making or breaking the quality of a wine, the Australians select and blend their wines from any number of vineyards, many of them located in the South Eastern states: Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. If the Aussies had a great year in three locations and bad in two, they’ll choose the grapes from the best sites and blend them.

In France, if you are making Rhone wines in the Côte-Rôtie and a hail storm falls on your crop before the harvest, you’re basically screwed.

So really, the big-guns are in it for the money and the last thing they want is surprises. They want to give the customer a product that delivers and satisfies expectations. They’ve created a brand everyone can depend upon.

The wines that can age are often at a premium. But by premium, it doesn’t mean they have to be hugely expensive. I went to a blind wine-tasting in early 2009. The man who provided the wine, a collector, assured us they were top quality. I assumed they were all expensive, from $50.00 and up. But for many this wasn’t the case. When the bottles were taken out of their paper bags, we found a welcome assortment of fascinating wines. We had tasted some high-end French, Italian and Spanish wines but also some moderately priced ones, as well. One of the wines that wowed me was a mid-priced blend from D’Arenberg, a 1998 D’Arby’s Original Shiraz Grenache. Ten years had softened the wine. I still tasted the brown sugar but new wonders arose. There was a layer of exotic spices in the wine’s aged flavour profile, from the mint to the pepper onward into cedar, mineral and a dusty mulberry. I had sampled the 2006 Vintage the previous year, recalling a robust, full-bodied fruit bomb. But to see what the wine could do down the road was eyebrow-lifting.

But since D’Arenberg is a trustworthy name, I wasn’t surprised. Still, I was taken aback, not expecting a mid-priced Australian wine to impress me.

But there is another story I need to tell. I worked in a retail wine store in North Vancouver, British Columbia. We marketed an excellent, Old Vines Garnacha from Calatayud in North Central Spain, highly rated and recommended by the American wine critic, Robert Parker. Yet it wasn’t expensive. A 2004 offering, for about $14.00 CAD, this wine never seemed to run out. Every time a case appeared with the order, I wondered if the new vintage had finally arrived. But the supply never seemed to ‘dry up’. We went through dozens upon dozes of cases of this Spanish wine. It was wonderful in 2008, ready to drink, displaying notes of black liquorice, black fruit with heady spices of earth and anise.

The following year, when the store purchased enough wine to create a display in the 90 POINTS section (the point system devised by Robert Parker and adopted by many critics; 90 points is the equivalent of an ‘A’ on a report card), the Garnacha was found to be over-the-hill. Many bottles were bought and many returned, the two most common complaints: ‘off-smelling’ and ‘corked’.

What had happened? We thought the wine was top-rated and a great value. My colleague and I decided to check the Robert Parker’s website. We found the wine review and read Parker’s note – drink between 2004-2008. The wine had hit its peak. I used to think wine predictions were just devices of wine critics, but Parker had been dead-on.

But there are variations in vintage, too. A wine consultant once told me he organized a wine-tasting for a large group of friends. The hosts bought two cases of the same wine. Being the expert, he was asked to check the wines, to make sure they weren’t off or corked. He went through twenty-four bottles, finding that there were some variations even though the wines were supposedly the same. Most of them were alike but there were four or five that were different, unique, unlike the rest though they weren’t corked, no foul smells.

It takes time and a bit of memory work to figure out some of the main variations in wine, from country differences to the differences in wines available – i.e. an Aussie Brand wine to a small French winery. Variations can be surprising; there is so much to explore. Keep an open mind when it comes to ‘tackling’ wine and you will never be bored.

Robinson, Jancis, The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2003.
Unwin, Tim, Wine and the Vine: An Historical Geography of Viticulture and the Wine Trade. Routledge, London, 1991.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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