‘There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow wines; true nobility is being superior to your former plonk.’
- Ernest Hemingway, more or less.
Earlier today, I had a spirited discussion about the genuine translation and import of the term ‘noble grapes’, in part with some know-it-all whizbangs, a few die-hard douche-aches and a handful of patronizing penises, some of whom—granted—know more about wine than anyone else on Mother Earth. In their humble opinion.
Meanwhile, the aptly named ‘Wine Folly’ blog lists eighteen varietals that, in their humble opinion, bear the the title ‘noble’. Not should bear it, not could bear it, but do bear it.
Interesting. In my past eno edumacation, I learned that there were but six grapes truly considered ‘noble’ by vignoscenti: Sauvignon blanc, riesling, chardonnay for white wines; pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and merlot for reds.
Criticism of this list arose because, with the exception of riesling, these are all grapes closely associated with Bordeaux and Burgundy, and thus the list is skewed with prejudice first toward France, then toward Germany—or, in Medieval-speak, under the edicts of Charlemagne, toward the Frankish/Hunnic varietals.
But that’s ultimately a crock of shite, isn’t it, since each of these grapes have reached heights of majesty elsewhere? And that is one of the hallmark of a noble grape: The ability to produce wines of note outside of their native soil—or, that soil with which they have been historically identified.
I like six. The eighteen not so much.
Here’s Why, in Allegory:
In a quondam reality, I did restaurant reviews for a local rag, and every year I was called upon to list the top hundred restaurants in Detroit. You’d think that would be a fairly innocuous task, and do you know what? You’d think wrong: Listing the top ten restaurants was far easier. Because, as in every city, the top ten restaurants in Detroit know exactly who they are. On the other hand, every restaurant thinks they should be in the top hundred. But, with over three hundred restaurants in competition, two-thirds could not make the cut.
Likewise, groveling before pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc may concede its pedigree, in comparison, as being somewhat deficient, even with such exciting peppery, spicy examples as Château Cheval Blanc, Tenuta di Trinoro and Saumur’s Domaine Filliatreau on the cab franc resume. But, when the six nobles are expanded to eighteen, cab franc would certainly expect a berth among the berries, especially with malbec and nebbiolo taking their bows.
Not so. Plus, a direct quote from the Folly follies:
‘As grapes like zinfandel become more common, they earn the right to become International Varieties.’
The article uses ‘International Varieties’ and ‘Noble Grapes’ interchangeably; a consuetude I contradict for reasons I’ll offer. But, the point is, even having made that statement about zinfandel, California’s lifeblood grape still does not make the Wine Folly list of eighteen.
‘International’: Incidents and Issues
By the definition of general consensus, an ‘international variety’ is a grape that is widely planted in most of the major wine producing regions and has widespread appeal and recognition.
Okay, I will buy into that; but recognition among the rabble no more makes a varietal ‘noble’ than the notion that everyone named King should wear a crown. Of course, we are crossing quickly from objective notes to subjective ones, but to me, the very term ‘noble’ constitutes something more than widespread consumer cognizance—in fact, it may connote the opposite. A noble grape is one whose wines have breeding, character and status; a grape which can rise to the occasion with elegance and produce wines of note under a variety of circumstances. Nobility in a grape is an x-factor certainly; a je ne sais quoi (French for ‘can’t touch dat’), but like hard-core pornography and Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it. Or smell it, or taste it.
Good golly, Wine Folly: A Volley Internationale
So, Wine Folly’s eighteen noble—or so-called ‘international’ varieties—are for reds the classic three: Merlot, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, rounded out by grenache, malbec, sangiovese, tempranillo, syrah and nebbiolo. Whites are listed as (the big three), chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling followed by sémillon, viognier, chenin blanc, moscato and gewurtztraminer.
J’avoue, Folly foolanos, I am not sure what drove this list—if you came up with it on your own or borrowed it from sources unaccredited—but either way, let me pose a couple of quick ones:
By your own definition (lifted verbatim from Wikipedia, BTW), in order to qualify as noble or international, a grape must be ‘widely planted in most of the major wine producing regions’. So, perhaps your Board of Honchos could explain how nebbiolo—despite its lovely aromas of tar, truffles and tobacco—passes that smell test. Under 200 acres of nebbiolo planted in California hardly constitutes ‘widespread’, and where, outside of a few pockets in the Piedmont, does nebbiolo produce great wines?
Again, cab franc—the Rodney Dangerfield of cultivars—feels like the bridesmaid that never gets asked.
- …Especially when grenache walks down the aisle. Grenache, seriously? Noble? Granted, as one of the world’s most ubiquitous red wine grapes it fulfills the ‘widely planted’ criterion, but the Wine Folly explicification requires equally that the grape has widespread appeal. Now, out of a hundred consumers chosen at random from the cesspool of modernity, how many do you think could describe grenache in even the most abstract of terms? My guess is that most of them would not even necessarily know that the wine is red. And why is that? Because grenache is almost always lacking in acid, tannin and color, and thus, serves as a blending grape far, far more often than as a stand-alone. Even Châteauneuf-du-Pape, around 80% grenache, requires thirteen other grapes to chip in before it is willing to show its face. Now, just because a grape requires a helping hand does not disqualify it from noble grape status; otherwise, the list could pretty much be whittled down to chardonnay and pinot noir. Point is, for the most part, outside of Southern Rhône, grenache is not a grape that needs blending, it is the blending grape that shores up something else.
- Not much I can say about the presence of pinot grigio among the cépages nobles and keep a straight face. Because the third paradigm for nobility is an association with the highest quality of wine made at least somewhere between Venus and Mars. Now, we all know that pinot gris is the same grape vinified with stylistic differences based on climate and attitude. In fact, pinot grigio also goes by the names baratszinszoeloe, fromentot, spinovy hrozen, zelenak and everyone’s favorite nom de guerre, ouche. But Wine Folly, or whoever came up with the eighteen nobles, is not talking about the rich, full-bodied, unctuous pinot gris of Alsace, Russian Rivers or Oregon; they are talking specifically about the rather forgettable grigio incarnations of Northern Italy. We know this because, following the list, WF offers some descriptors, and covers pinot grigio like this: ‘Light and zesty high acid white wines…’
This is not a sketch of Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris Clos Windsbuhl.
Finally, sémillon. Maybe. Of course the sweet wines of Sauternes, Barsac and Cérons and Hunter Valley hit the mark as wines of prestige, influence and elegance. Wines that undergo inexplicable alchemies with age. But, like grenache, I can’t see sémillon as a grape with ‘widespread appeal’. The French don’t put the name of varietals of wine labels, so it is entirely possible—even likely—that most fans of Châteaux d’Yquem, Olivier, Suduiraut and La Tour-Blanche have no idea what they are drinking. As for Australia, beyond Hunter Valley, sauvignon blanc rules the roost.
Hello, Dolly! Who’s Wine Folly?
It is a popular, Seattle-based website, I know that much. Rick Bakas likes it and intends to share ‘every damn thing they post’ no matter if Wikipedia wrote it or not. Big on self-promo and even bigger on ego—WF refers to its own features as ‘awesome’—the site contains an entire section where you can buy invaluable stuff like posters on how to clink wine glasses correctly and a lesson on ‘Wine Color’, where you learn that light-colored wine is ‘light-bodied’, medium-colored wine is ‘medium-bodied’ and full-colored wine is… oh, never mind.
Meanwhile, the blog’s war cry is: ‘Reinventing how you learn about wine’.
I guess, considering that the piece from which I have been quoting refers to pinot noir as ‘the lightest red grape’. As a lifelong fan of Côte de Nuits, Willamette Valley and Central Otago, I did not realize that these soaring, intense, hedonistic pinot noirs were light.
Consider my learning reinvented.
Wine Folly’s editor is sommelier and self-described ‘head hustler’ Madeline Puckette, who assumes responsibility for editing those paragraphs that Wikipedia has not already edited and for tracking down the geekiest wine facts in the world, such as: Gevrey-Chambertin Les Cazetiers 2005 is not brawny and rich with great density and explosive perfumed fruitiness.
Justin Hammack, entrepreneur, refers to himself as an Alpha Hamster, and do you know what? Based on his photo, he could pass for one. But he is not one, because hamsters are restricted to hamster wheels, and in his 27-word bio, Justin manages to wedge in information on the size of his car’s engine. Busted!
And there is Rina Bussell, also of the healthy amour-propre, a sommelier who believes that her olfactory senses are superhuman because she can smell a watermelon in the kitchen from her bedroom. That is so sweet, so endearing, and self-love so rare among young people these days that one simply does not have the heart to tell her that such sensory acuteness is table-stakes for wine pros. So we won’t whisper so much as a word, agreed?
There’s a handful of other holly jolly Folly mollies, but my overall equilibrium-upset is reaching critical mass, so I will jump ahead and point out my favorite, faceless member of the Wine Folly Crew: ‘The Shadow’, who calls herself the resident ‘Grammartologist’ and whose purpose on the blog, apparently, is to rewrite sentences to make them more accessible to me and you and a hamster named Boo. Why do I dig the Shadow so much? Because, in her role of translating big sommelier words to single-syllable words that Johnny Lunchbucket can grasp, she purposely peppers her bio with misspellings, and then challenges us to laugh.
Consider my sides duly split, Shadow. I feel like I have been run over by the Turbo-2.0L hamster wheel of humor.
I’m 18 And I Like It
Hey, I really couldn’t give a hamster’s ass if you want to accept six, nine, eighteen or fifteen trillion noble grapes. On the other hand, if you expect me to accept them, I’d like a rational explanation of your precedence and principals, and why they are not universally applied to your list. Beside cabernet franc, gamay could have appeared as easily as nebbiolo. And petit sirah. And zinfandel.
Personally, as a wine writer, am I not particularly interested in reinventing the way you learn about wine. In fact, I like the old way of learning about wine: Sans wine blogs, especially mine.
But will I write another column tomorrow? Will Rick Bakas? Will Wine Folly?