Grape variety or terroir ?
Wine can be categorized in different ways, but basically, there are mainly two different ways to consider. These 2 ways are based on 2 philosophies which have not always gone along together very well. On one hand, wine can be categorized out from its geographical origin. On the other hand, the wine can be categorized out from which wine grape variety that has been used for the winemaking. The first way based on the geographical origin is usually defended by the wine producing countries in Europe and the second way, based on which grape variety that has been used, is usually defended by what we call the New World.
In France, when speaking about different wine varieties, it's primarily the geographical origin, which through the appellation system, is commissioned to organize the French wine production. This is also the case in the other areas of the wine-producing Europe, especially since the systems were harmonized via Brussels and has since 2009 become the same all over Europe. However, it was in France it all began, thanks to a wine grower in Chateauneuf-du-Pape named Pierre Le Roy de Boiseaumarié (also called Le Baron Le Roy). It was through him (to make a long story short) that the original appellation-system was developed and that the foundation for the appellation thinking was created already back in 1935. An appellation is a geographical place with state-set rules for how to produce wine in a specific region. The appellation also determins which grape varieties that may be used in the local wine production. You can of course exceed these rules and make the wine you want, but then your wine will not be an appellation wine – an approved AOP.
The French AOC symbol (replaced by the European AOP symbol) and the IGP.
Only 10 years ago, few consumers in France asked themselves which grape variety or varieties that were used in the winemaking. Wine was categorized (and actually still is today!) depending on its geographic origin. What in French is called «terroir» is the most important concept when classifying wine. The "terroir" can shortly be translated into the soil, but in real, "the terroir" is a much broader concept which not only takes into account the soil (terre), but also the vine's exposure to the sun, the climate, the wind, the height above sea level. In other words, it's the common denominator for everything that influences the grapes and thereby has an impact on the character of the wine. Historically, the appellations system has been a very important concept in France, both in the winemaking and also to the man in the street. Good wines belong to an appellation and even today, there are few who are interested in what grape variety that has been used for producing the wine.
A French exception is Alsace, where the name of the grape variety was added to the appellation name when the Alsace appellation was created in 1962. For example you say AOP Alsace Riesling or AOP Alsace Gewurtztraminer, not only Alsace. But generally speaking, the wine's geographical origin and its terroir play a more significant role in France than just the name of a grape variety. As an example, few consumers in France would ask for a «Chardonnay» in a retail store . They would rather ask for a white wine from Burgundy with all its hundreds of various geographical names …
In contrast to this terroir philosophy, there are those who primarily are interested in the grape varieties, of which the wine has been produced. This terminology derives mainly from the new world wines which, less tied to tradition and history, have been able to experiment and produce varietal wines made from only one grape variety and where generally speaking, wine producer have been much more interested in the grape varieties rather than the regional origine.
Who is right then and what is important when you choose your wine? Well, to completely rule out the wine's composition is perhaps a bit too simple and a bit old fashioned for the modern and knowledge-hungry winelover. Today, also in France, people have realized that different grape varieties give different taste. Many are the vineyards which, alongside its stricter appellation wines, experiment and produce varietal wines of great quality. In Burgundy, where only pinot noir is planted (some Gamay…) for its red wines, the varietal philosophy lacks totally interest, but in the Rhône Valley, where a Chateauneuf-du-Pape can contain up to 13 different grape varieties, or in the Pays d'Oc where there are 60 different grape varieties to use, it can be interesting to consider the varietal composition of the wine.
The variety philosophy in recent years has had its impact also in France. Many French regions, which like the wines from the New World haven't historically benefitted from a high-quality reputation, have begun to produce varietal wines. Today we find good wines with the names of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Malbec in both Languedoc and in Provence.
What is then the problem and why are there antagonists to the varietal philosophy?
Categorizing wine out from the grape variety is actually a simplistic way of defining wine and has actually been eagerly pushed by the large industrial wineries. Opponents to this philosophy, usually question the new world and mainly the large US company's (including Gallo and Mondavi) way of making wine. The wines are called «technical wines" which don't take into account the natural grape's origin and characteristics, but are considered to be produced in the wine cellar with aromas when needed. The criticism comes mainly from the continental Europe, since the new world permits "after work" of the grapes and of the wine in the cellar which are not legally allowed in Europe. These wines often obtain easily recalled names followed by the grape variety name (Merlot, Chardonnay, etc …) and these brand wines are advertised with large budgets. And of course, being able to sell a Chardonnay with one brand name worldwide, guaranteeing the same taste year after year is industrially far more interesting than having to advertise a local wine with local names and varied taste experience depending on the vintage … This standardisation in the wine production is considered to contribute to reducing the diversity of wines in the world and with some exaggeration, one can say that there are industrial interests which would like the Chardonnay to became the word for white and Shiraz became the name of the red wine. The offer becomes limited to a few well-marketed varieties and the smaller, local and very interesting grape varieties are put aside and disappear.
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It is easy to understand the difference between the different philosophies when you look at the structure of wine production; in Australia, there are 3 producers representing 80% of the exported wine. In Bordeaux, France, there are 20,000 different wineries …
However, our view of the matter is that there is room for both philosophies. The industrial approach to the varietal philosophy is mainly targeting simpler wines and those entry-level consumers who get up interest in wine by example a Chardonnay, will soon explore and find that there are differences between Chardonnay wines from various regions. He will soon notice that wine can be very different depending on where they come from, although the grape variety is the same. A white Sauvignon wine from the Loire, for example, can be very different from a Sauvignon wine from e.g. Friuli in northern Italy. The terroir philosophy will thus automatically take its natural place for someone who has a genuine interest in wine and who through his curiosity search for variation.
The appellation system guarantees a certain process, that a wine is not made with oak chips but with real oak barrels, and without unlawful aromas, but watch out, there are both French and Italian appellation wines which unfortunately does not hold any great quality. That wine is an appellation wine is a guarantee for the respect of tradition and origin (terroir), but by no means that the wine is of outmost quality. Many times, a varietal wine, which on paper is only an IGP or table wine, is better than a sloppily made AOP wine.
Are you now confused? To drink good wine, you can actually consider both the terroir philosophy and the grape varietal philosophy. It's a good thing that there's an appellation system that structures the wine and defend tradition, but it is also good that there are winemakers who produce good varietal wines. Anything that increases variety and range is in our view positive, of course provided that consumers can easily understand what they are buying.
The irony is that nature itself unites the two concepts since vines of the same grape variety, but from 2 different origines, give different characteristics to the wines as well when vinified separately. There are e.g. in southern France, wine growers who cultivates both French and Italian Vermentino on the same land and the plants provide two different white wines with different taste! The terroir philosophy is an uncompromisingly important part of the character of a wine, but also, the grape variety itself has clones which make wines with different characters even if the vines are grown in the same place! Wine is – despite the big companies trial to prove the opposite – an agricultural product, not an industrial product where the end product is always the same. But that's also the charm of wine.