EN VINO VERITAS
By Noble Collins
If wine was not so complicated, would it be as interesting? Perhaps not.
Everything about wine is somewhat complex and fascinating, from its origin to the way it is made and enjoyed. The labeling alone will drive you crazy.
We can start with some unique well known terms – Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chablis, Chianti, etc. etc. Not too long ago, we Americans, in particular, generally identified wine by these designations. We knew Bordeaux and Burgundy were red and Chablis was white, and we hoped for something that tasted familiar when we ordered. American winemakers accommodated us by labeling their wines accordingly.
We weren’t alone in that. For a long time, early British wine drinkers simply ordered a Claret when ordering wine. Since they preferred the reds, that’s what they ordered – Claret.
As wine grew exponentially in popularity after World War II, the U.S. quickly became its biggest consumer (now, its biggest producer.). Service men and women came home from locations around the world where wine had always been a staple, quite commonly drunk more often than water. The water often was bad.
As the U.S. economy boomed in the Fifties and Sixties, demand for more and better wine came right along. The masses demanded a taste of what only well-heeled patrons had kept to themselves for generations. Interest in the many variations and styles of wine soon exploded.
Still, for a long time, wine was merely a commodity and we knew it by generic names. Until well into the Sixties and Seventies, most Americans were ordering a "red” or a “white.” Soon,one began to hear the more sophisticated, “Bordeaux,” “Chablis.” etc., but I dare say we still didn’t understand what we were ordering much different from “red” or “white.”
One American was determined to change that and elevate our knowledge and sensory experiences. He is primarily responsible for the revolution in American tastes in wine and efforts in winemaking. The name is Robert Mondavi.
Mondavi’s father operated a large fresh produce company in Lodi, California, which contracted for and sold a large amount of wine grapes among other things. The company later bought a well-known wine producer by the name of Charles Krug. and found a great outlet for their abundance of grapes. As a wine producer, The Krug brand grew to be a major player in the American wine business. Today, you will still find the name Charles Krug on many labels. Interestingly, as Mondavi wine became more familiar and in demand, Krug wines began labeling many of their products, C.K. Mondavi.
Robert grew restless, however, and wanted to produce great wines similar to the fine wines produced in France, known as “FirstGrowths.” A family feud developed when Robert’s younger brother Peter sided with their mother to continue the successful Krug business and not venture into new territory. Robert was given a small inheritance, and he left the family.
Soon, he established The Robert Mondavi winery in Oakville California in the heart of the Napa Valley - a territory he felt was ideal for growing premium grapes. He began a practice of labeling his wines with their varietal names to identify the particular grape used. This later revolutionized the way wine was labeled in the U.S. and even around the world.
Mondavi’s dream was to rival the great “First Growths” in France, and he imported rootstock from there to establish his first grapevines. One of his first successes was a Sauvignon Blanc which he named “Fume’ Blanc” for its alleged smokiness. The term stuck, and many Sauvignon Blancs are now known as Fume’.
In most of the Old World, wines were known only by their region of origin. The best wines were further known by specific areas, and the absolute best were known by individual plots of land where it was believed the best grapes grew and the best winemakers practiced their art. The practice is still in place today, rigidly controlled by the government. It is extremely difficult to decipher unless one has studied the situation very carefully.
A true wine lover must do his homework to identify specific properties in order to enjoy a particular wine. This goes for all “Old World” wine (wine from a broad area in Europe where wine has been made for centuries.) The labels on these wines will identify the region and often the specific area and vineyard. It will almost never list the variety of grape.
Robert Mondavi saw that as a hindrance to understanding fine wine.
He was a pioneer in labeling wine by its grape variety. Soon, though, distinct properties began to stand out from the rest, and the practice of also identifying the area and even the winery began to take hold. In the "New World" (pretty much everywhere but Europe) you will usually find the variety of the grape dominating the label, however.
If you prefer a Chardonnay, you become aware that that grape produces a particular flavor, but varies by many factors depending on where and how it is grown and made. In the New World, if you prefer a Chardonnay the label will list the name of that grape prominently on the label. In Europe, however, if you prefer a particular Chardonnay, you will need to know the region and producer by name. The grape variety will seldom appear on the label.
Much more later