“Wine awakens and refreshes the lurking passions of the mind, as varnish does to the colours which are sunk in a picture, and brings them out in all their natural glowings”
A grape is juice, flesh, skin and pips – and that is the ‘embryo’ of wine. The wine’s flavours depend on the grape variety. How it matures and changes with ageing depends on the potential of the particular grape. The wine style, whether sweet or dry, fizzy or fortified or still, depends on the different grape variety’s peculiar characteristics. Some grapes love the kiss of oak, others loathe its warm embrace. Wines from different wine regions taste differently, but without the consistent character of each different grape variety, mere comparison of place would be meaningless. However much we delve into all the things that influence wine flavours, it all comes back to the grape.
If you are given a glass of pale golden green wine, with a wonderful scent of gooseberry, passionflower and lime, and you taste it and the acidity freshens your mouth, with the exhilarating attack of citrus fruit scouring your palate clean and making your mouth drool for food, but if you’re asked who made the wine? No idea. If you’re asked where it comes from? It could be the French Loire Valley, South Africa, Chile, Spain, Northern Italy or New Zealand – the four corners of the world, really. But the grape variety? When it smells and tastes like that, you know it is Sauvignon Blanc. The wine’s uniquely recognizable character is traced to the grape variety – Sauvignon Blanc – above all else. It is refined by the talents of those who grow the grape and vinify the wine. It is modified or intensified by the local conditions under which it grows, but the flavour’s core comes from the grape.
Sauvignon Blanc is a dramatic grape, but so is Viognier with its apricot and mayblossom scent. So is Gewürztraminer with its explosion of musky rose petals, and so is Muscat with its overpowering aroma of hothouse grapes. Riesling is more subtle, but the balance of high acidity with floral notes and citrus fruit is unique to the grape. Chardonnay’s nutty, oatmealy, buttery ripeness is created with oak barrel ageing, but no other grape achieves quite that taste, however similarly you treat it, wherever it is grown.
Red wine grapes are frequently less outspoken, and presently the obsession with over-doing new oak ageing is spoiling the thrilling individuality of many grapes’ flavours – although good varieties still shine through. Tannic sturdiness and blackcurrant fruit mark out Cabernet Sauvignon in a way no other grape can replicate. The ethereal scent and wild strawberry/cherry fruit of Pinot Noir, the damson fruit and violet perfume of Malbec, the sour cherry and herbal rasp of Sangiovese, the brilliant chocolate and smoky black plum blast of Shiraz – all of these experiences are above all else due to the particular characteristics of the grape variety.
So it is remarkable how, for so long, grapes seemed to have been relegated to a subordinate role when they are so evidently of such massive importance. Until the advent of ‘New World’ winemaking techniques that allow the winemaker to pinpoint the flavour of the grape and maximise it, few people – winemakers, wine writers and wine drinkers – actually had much idea of what grape variety was supposed to taste like. It was easier to say that a wine’s particular taste derived from where it was grown, and that it tasted of ‘terroir’. Indeed, the wines often did have a minerally or earthy flavour, which probably emanated from the vineyard and from old-fashioned winemaking, rather than from the grape itself. That’s why, until recently, many experts and critics were obsessed with the minutiae of a wine’s birthplace rather than its chief component – the grape juice itself.
Everything changed when the ‘New World’ producers brashly barged their way through into our wine consciousness. The Australians, Californians, New Zealanders, South Africans and Chileans didn’t have much of a story to tell about traditions and historical importance of their young vineyards. The one story they could tell, and the one their ultra-modern winemaking allowed them to tell, was that of the grape itself and the flavour it imparted to the wine.
Albert Cilia-Vincenti is a long-standing member of The Wine Society (1874) of UK and founding committee member of “Il-Qatra” – a 60-member blind-tasting wine club of 10 years standing. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org