Monday, March 2, 2009

What Makes a Wine?

My chapter of Women for WineSense had a great tasting with David Moore at Moore Brothers Wine Company last week in Gramercy.  One of the things that makes this shop so unique is that they specialize in wines from France, Italy and Germany, and as well, they have a wonderful event space that has a kitchen stocked with sleek stainless steel appliances - Chef Shehu, who came to pick me up, was drooling!  

Listening to David Moore speak that night brought to light another unique feature of this shop.  A main vein wine philosophy that likely directs all the wine selections in the store.  He talked at length about the places the wines came from - it seems he had not only visited them all, but was surprisingly familiar with minute details like soil and climate differences between this vineyard and the next vineyard over - and it soon came to light that he places a high level of importance on the origin of a particular wine.  

Although the reasons for this fact are arguable, it is undeniable that wine is a product of its place.  Nonetheless, I had to disagree in my own mind with the way he diminished the importance of the grape variety as a contributor to the character of the wine it becomes.  "Calling Chinon Cabernet Franc is like calling bread flour," he opined, referring to one of my favorite red wines from France's meandering Loire Valley.  

To be clear, Chinon is the name of a place in the valley, also referred to as an appellation.  The wines of Chinon are red wines made from the Cabernet Franc grape.  I agree that Cabernet Franc wines made in Chinon must taste different than Cabernet Franc made on the North Fork of Long Island, as a function of the phenomenon we call terroir.  Nonetheless, I maintain that Cabernet Franc as a grape has a distinct character and therefore is a major contributor to what makes Chinon Chinon.  If Pinot Noir were also grown and produced in Chinon, it would be an inherently distinct glass of wine.  

As well, to say that calling a wine of place by the name of the grape it is made from is akin to calling bread flour is a bit simplistic.  One of the magical things about wine is that it is the least processed of the agricultural products that undergo processing to reach a final result.  Water, sometimes sugar, eggs, seeds, grains, flavorings of various types and heat must be added to flour to create bread.  Wine, in its most essential form, is never embellished to this point.  It may be aged in oak or fermented with selected yeast strains, but it remains what it is from day: 100% grape juice.  And the juices of Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling grapes all taste distinct.  Even the addition of water can change the flavor of flour, depending on where that water comes from.  

In my crusade to help the wine consumer confidently buy and enjoy wine, I have found that grape varieties are a much more simple thing to latch on to and make sense of.  A grape can have a character like an person, and it can travel and live and grow in various places, take on new characteristics, even reinvent itself, but still be what it is.  To understand a particular location as the identity of a wine can be a bit confusing, because while all wine is a product of grapes, not all wine is an inextricable product of the place it was made.  

I love a good Chinon.  We tasted one on the night of our event in our cute shoes side by side with a Bourgeil.  They tasted different to me, one a bit more tannic and earthy than the other, but none the less I loved them both.  Two wines made from my favorite grape variety: Cabernet Franc.  

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