By Lim Hwee Peng, CSW, FWS
27th July 2012
In my interaction with fellow wine lovers, I have come across much doubt querying whether it is REALLY possible, by nosing and tasting the wines, one could identify varietals as well as other components in the bottle.
I cannot help noticing niggling scepticism in the tone of that query.
Perhaps those who posed the queries have encountered their fair share of less-than-believable sharing by overzealous wine lovers.
There are indeed such individuals out there, trying their overwhelming best to impress, unfortunately, not for the right reasons, which made genuine wine lovers like us looking rather sheepish.
Nevertheless, it is indeed possible to list the possible varietals that a wine were made from, as well as listing possible place of origins, although a good understanding of the viticulture and vinification processes is required.
Yet, viticulture and vinifications are two technical terms that probably best reserved for ‘Star Wars’ chat (see article on ‘Communication’ published on 20th Jan 2012, on www.drinkgoodwines.com for details).
Prior to studying the agriculture aspect of grape farming and various winemaking methods, a vital foundation block to be established is a good grasp of uniqueness in major grape varietals.
After which, the possible impact and influences by other elements such as climate and treatment processes can be discussed in context.
However, for consumers, it might be a tad too academic in approach; i.e. understanding which varieties fall under aromatic, neutral and acidic white grapes, or thin or thick-skinned red grape varietals, as well as their unique characters.
I believed when sharing with consumers, we (wine professionals) must attempt our best to simplify our knowhow to reach out and make wine enjoyment a pleasurable one for them.
Thankfully, through conducting various corporate wine workshops, I have found that personifying each varietal can be a fun way to discover the unique characters of each grape.
Since the Olympic officially has commenced, I shall attempt to put some association of wines with this major sports event.
Differences between the two key Bordeaux grape varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are like abang and adik (elder and younger brother in ethnic Malay language). When put together, they can be wonderfully enjoyable, yet, separately, they could also charm drinkers with their uniqueness.
As a sports personality, I would describe a Cabernet Sauvignon as a young and active rugby player making an impression with its strong and muscular physique, with an unyielding drive and an unmistakable energetic performance.
Whereas a Merlot is a rugby player, too, albeit a retired one; as it exhibits it’s softer, dense muscles, and mellow persona that is both accommodating and welcoming.
Merlot can also be a good varietal to spin off a simple sharing on compatibility of soil with grape varietals.
Nevertheless, soil types can be a tough subject to share, and for city dwellers like us, it is rather profound to speak about soil types in grape-growing.
However, in wine study, understanding soil types and its impact on vine’s growth can be an important lesson. E.g. certain soil types (such as sandy soils) can avoid the phylloxera plague; while pebbles can assist in further ripening of the plants when sun sets, etc. Some plants thrives in cool soil (or wet soil), while others delight in warm soil (e.g. gravel soil).
If I could personify a varietal in its relationship with suitable soil types, then Merlot could be a swimmer; already being nicknamed by some winemakers as a ‘wet feet’ varietal due to its affinity with soil that could hold water (such as clay).
With that understanding, then it is not surprising that Merlot has a strong presence in St Emilion and Pomerol (60% and 70%, respectively, of red varietals planted in those two renowned Bordeaux sub-regions) where clay soil is aplenty.
Another common queries that I encountered, “how do you tell a wine made from a blend vis-à-vis one that is crafted from single varietal?”
Much like an athlete, a blended wine is likely to be a long-distance runner, with a balance physique (not brawny). This middle to long-distance runner might not immediately impress you with a strong and muscular presence, but it has an impressive stamina that endures and endears to its fans.
A single-varietal wine would likely be a short-distance runner (100 metres to 400 metres sprinters); bursting through the glass as it exhibits its flair and charm unabashedly, leaving fans doubtless of their identity, and definitely a crowd pleaser if they are champion materials (think of Usain Bolt and his signature victory pose).
Alternatively, we could also link single varietal wines vis-à-vis blended wines with an individual sport or team game respectively.
For example, each tennis player exudes its own charm and attraction, much like a single varietal wine; triumph in such individual-focus pursuit is based primarily on the strength and reliability of the player (grape).
While a football/ soccer team can only achieve and sustain success, based on the different attributes of each player contributing their unique strength effectively, so as to achieve a champion performance. Naturally, there will be some players (grapes) that will garner more limelight than the others, but they also shoulder more responsibilities for the team performance.
Much similar to sportsman, varietals perform better in different climatic conditions.
Riesling and Pinot Noir, for example, would easily qualify as successful Winter Sportsmen.
Both varietal thrives in cool climate, and could be made into a fine wine if it is planted in such preferential environment.
Although I might add that Pinot Noir could be a sportsman with an attitude; throwing tantrum, with a picky habit and unmistakable temperament. If and when he is successful, he can certainly be a prima donna (John McEnroe comes to mind, and if you know who this sports personality is, we would deduce you are probably a Baby Boomer or Gen X).
For sports that require its participants to travel frequently, it is not hard to observe that travelers have their own unique behavior and preferences with regards to their needs and requirement when they are on the road.
I would regard Chardonnay as an avid traveling sports ambassador.
It has immense popularity wherever he goes; possess a mild temperament, with excellent adapting skills in various environment, and regardless of its treatment, it will arrive and perform expectedly, with little surprises (David Beckham, perhaps??)
There are also a group of grapes – native varietals, that are absolutely comfortable in their home ground, and no matter how appealing the options of traveling are, they will be found wanting when being transported to a foreign soil.
Such home-grown varietals include Sangiovese and Nebbiolo (indigenous grapes of Tuscany and Piedmonte respectively).
Some varieties can be as eye-catching as cheerleaders; jumping, prancing, dancing and attracting one’s attention with their easy on the eye performance. Aromatic varietals are much like those cheerleaders impressing fans with their alluring characters.
Viognier, Gewurztraminer, and Chenin Blanc are some of those attractive grapes gaining their rightful attention.
More often than not, those varieties are also versatile; they can enchant their fans with their dry to sweet wine style, depending on tradition, treatment, climate and their maker’s intention.
Naturally, not all grapes were given the enchanting birthright like the aromatic varietals. Thus, it is only normal that they might perceive a Muscat’s popularity with envy.
‘Green with envy’ would be a more appropriate descriptor, especially when their path crossed with their well-received cousins.
Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Albarino, and Aligote are some of those varieties that prefer to unveil their sourness as their main expression.
Their ‘acidic’ behaviour might cause others to squeal, yet those sharp, tart and sour characters can be soothed when food becomes their companion, which explains why those acid varietals are excellent food wine.
Indeed, there are various fun and amusing ways to understand the key characters of each grape variety.
With that understanding, we can get acquainted, better manage, and keenly appreciate their unique traits and attributes, as well as the wine they are made from.
More importantly, do not misunderstand or underestimate the power of knowledge.
Just don’t flaunt it unabashedly like a PX.
No, it is not an extreme sport, PX (Pedro Ximenez) is a Spanish aromatic varietal traditionally used in the making of sweet Sherry.
In recent wine trend, this Spanish sweetie has been gradually changing its expression to a dry white wine style.
Nonetheless, it continues to delight wine drinkers much like a rhythmic gymnast; sweeping you off your feet effortlessly with a combination of ballet, dance and gymnastic.