For us wine drinkers, the answer is "quite a lot!" But first a bit of history.
event #1: Prohibition. The U.S. suffered this piece of legal insanity
for fourteen years, from January 1920 to December 1933. This meant that
an entire generation grew up in this country without the opportunity to
develop a taste and enthusiasm for fine wine. It also meant that the
native wine industry (and California was all that really mattered in
those days) was dealt a crippling blow; a few wineries stayed open
producing sacramental wine, but most closed shop during the dry period.
Those young sophisticates who asked for wine at their local speakeasy
were given the choice of "sherry, port, or muscatel," made from grape
concentrate shipped from California. As a result, American wine
consumption in 1940 was about 75% sweet fortified wines and only 25%
dry natural wine.
Historical event #2: the Second World War. Many
young servicemen returning home from Europe brought with them an
enlightened interest in food (mom's Sunday done-to-death pot roast
wasn't going to cut it any more) and wine. A former colleague of mine
had served in Germany with a unit charged with guarding German
prisoners of war billeted in an old castle; his discovery of a
treasure-trove of wine in the cellar was the start of a life-long love
affair with wine. Add to this the fact that those few Americans who had
found a way to obtain and drink wine during Prohibition had, in all
likelihood, been drinking imported wine and we can begin to understand
why post-Repeal American winemakers thought the only way they could
successfully market their products was by giving the wines European
names . . . and so we had (from California) Chablis, Rhine wine,
Burgundy, Claret, and Sauterne.
Importer Frank Schoonmaker - a
legend in his own time - made it his personal crusade to change that.
He argued that it was wrong to call something Chablis that didn't come
from Chablis and didn't taste anything like Chablis. It took a few
years, but eventually the domestic industry came around, labeling wines
by varietal and correct place name. As Schoonmaker wrote 60 years ago:
"Casting aside our European inferiority complex, with regards to wine,
we find, to our surprise, that the wines not only sound better under
their truthful names, but that, since they have given up trying to be
imitations, they taste better too."
labeled their wines by place name; they assumed, for example, that
consumers knew that if they bought a Sancerre they were buying
Sauvignon Blanc. Many Europeans still operate on assumptions like that
but, in a gesture to the varietal-conscious American market, more and
more are including the grape name on their label.
Come to think
about it, if it hadn't been for Schoonmaker, we (the 67 Varietal Club)
probably wouldn't be here. So let's raise our glasses in a toast to the
pioneering spirit of Mr. S!
Not Exactly Household Words!
varietal-conscious are we? Well, we all know Chardonnay, Cabernet,
Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, maybe Sangiovese and
Barbera, maybe Pinot Gris, maybe Nebbiolo, and of course Syrah/Shiraz.
But there's a much wider grape world out there than just what these
represent. Jancis Robinson's little Guide to Wine Grapes lists more
than 800 varietals; even allowing for the fact that many are "aliases,"
that number is still cause for a celebration of diversity.
of the pleasure of the Varietal Club (for us as well as for you) is
discovering outstanding wines made from grapes that are "not exactly
household words." So here are six fun new ones for starters!
According to Jancis Robinson, "Valdiguié,
sometimes called Gros Auxerrois, enjoyed its finest hour in the late
19th century, when it was valued for its productivity and its
resistance to powdery mildew in the Lot, South West France." The French
eventually came to regard it as a "quantity rather than quality" grape
and ripped out most of the vines. However, in 1980 Pierre Galet, the
father of modern ampelography (the science of vine description by
physical characteristics) visited California and identified the
varietal the locals were calling Napa Gamay as none other than
is, per Jancis, "one of the oldest and most distinctive grape varieties
of Savoie, bringing an Italianate depth to the region in contrast to
the reds produced by the Gamay imported only after phylloxera." Some
authorities find strong similarities to Refosco, a red grape of Friuli
in northeastern Italy - not surprising, since both regions 500 years
ago were part of the House of Savoy - but the jury is still out on that
You've never heard of it, you don't have a clue how to pronounce it, but guess what? Rkatsiteli
(four syllables, you pronounce the initial R) is one of the four most
widely planted grapes in the world. Why haven't we heard of it? Because
it's grown primarily in Bulgaria, Romania, and in almost all of the
former Soviet republics (it adapts well to particularly cold winters).
Jancis praises it, saying "much is demanded of this variety and it
achieves much, providing a base for a wide range of wine styles."
With only 50 acres or so planted in Napa and Mendocino, Charbono
probably qualifies as our most obscure grape. Most experts believe it
is the same as the Corbeau (or Charbonneau or Douce Noire), a now
almost extinct variety once grown in the Savoie, but we know it was
imported into California by two early winemakers, J. H. Drummond and
J.-B. J. Portal, in the 1870s. One wag of a wine writer accuses those
few producing a Charbono today of trying to make something out of
nothing, but the truth is that the grape (partly thanks to the age of
most of the vines) can produce a characterful, concentrated red.
is not just Austria's very own grape, it is also the country's most
important: well over a third of total vineyard acreage in the country
is planted to this grape, and in the Danube it reigns supreme. Our
grape has also migrated over the border into Slovakia and Hungary. It
is a productive and relatively hardy vine that can produce wines that
offer both perfume and substance.
The grape in the Argiolas Perdera is Monica di Sardegna,
probably the most widely planted red grape on the island of Sardinia.
Some experts think the vine came originally from Spain (though it is
not found there today) and it may be the same as the historic Mission
grape planted by the Franciscan missionaries in Mexico and California
for sacramental purposes. On Sardinia it makes a fragrant red that may
be either dry or sweet, either still or frizzante.
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