Buyers Guide to VINTAGES – Aug 18th, 2018

Noble Grapes versus Native Grapes
By David Lawrason with notes from John Szabo and Michael Godel

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Last week John shone a light on the new wave of grape varieties re-making Australian wine in VINTAGES August 18 release – thanks to an uncharacteristically daring collection assembled by VINTAGES buyer Greg MacDonald. Langhorne Creek Montepulciano eh?

This week I want to stay on-theme and discuss the rise of native/indigenous/autochthonous grape varieties on a global basis, with some of our recommendations focused on Saturday’s secondary theme – “Europe Less Travelled”.

You can skip to the picks here, or you can pour a glass of something unusual and sit a spell.

I am currently reading a new book titled “Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavour and the Search for the Origins of Wine”. It is an earnest, enjoyable and educational read by American journalist Kevin Begos who found fascination with the origins of wine and vines while stationed in the Middle East. He is not a wine journalist, but a good journalist, telling an important and well researched story.

Aside from the labyrinth of historical anecdotes, I am most intrigued by the concept he presents that the ‘noble French varieties’ have unfairly and strategically dominated the international landscape for the past 50 years or so. And that 50 years is but a blip on the graph of the viticultural timeline that ranges back over almost 10,000 years.

Could it be that the growing interest in alternative wine styles (natural, orange, pet nat) and obscure native grape varieties (of which there are thousands), is the beginning of the end of the international dominance of the French noble varieties? Especially when you add climate change thus terroir shift into the discussion?

So what are these so-called “noble” varieties? There is no regulation around the term, nor do you see it on labels. They are French varieties promoted in the last decades of the 20th Century, when French wine was the best promoted wine around. They are simply the mainstay varieties of France’s most historic regions, and they certainly can make great wine in those regions. But that doesn’t mean they automatically make great wine when planted elsewhere.

Among whites the core “nobles” are chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling. Among reds they are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir and syrah. VINTAGES August 18 release has 49 wines based on these seven varieties (or 46% of the 107 still wines on offer).

Some argue for inclusion of other French varieties in the court of nobility. Among whites chenin blanc, pinot gris, semillon and perhaps gewürztraminer. Among reds cabernet franc and others in the Bordeaux family like malbec and petit verdot, and over in the Rhône camp grenache and mourvedre. Whither gamay and tannat? If you roll these varieties into the numbers then VINTAGES release has 75 still wines made from French varieties, or 69% of the release.

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“It is a marketing scam that we ended up with ten (or so) varieties that are destined to be the best in the world” according to Andy Walker, a Chair of Viticulture at the University of California, Davis. He is quoted in “Tasting the Past”, along with others who claim the wine industry has long advocated for the noble varieties for financial reasons and suppressed the use of lesser known indigenous varieties which are actually better suited to local terroirs.

I experienced this first hand in Majorca, Spain this spring where an impoverished, isolated, island wine industry had embraced the international noble varieties in the 1990s in an effort to please the millions of tourists who visit every year. The native varieties like the red mantonegro and white prensal were on the brink until two appellations were created on the island that required a minimum percentage of native grapes blended with merlot, syrah etc. It was a compromise, and the blends are pleasant enough but not all that engaging, with the indigenous character subsumed by the nobles. And then I tasted a handful of 100% indigenous wines, and I was suddenly interested and impressed.

Bringing it closer to home, Sean Myles, a Nova Scotian viticulture researcher who published a 2011 paper on grape biodiversity was talking about winter hardy French-American hybrids when he was quoted in “Tasting the Past”. He said “If applied to any other category you’d say this is just plain racism. A little bit of wild ancestry? Ah, you’re still a hybrid, and inferior to the noble European grapes”.

In fact, French-American hybrids are officially segregated in Ontario wherein VQA rules only allow them the broad Ontario appellation – not the more specific terroirs of Niagara Peninsula or Prince Edward County. The exception is vidal when used for icewine. It can say Niagara Peninsula. Perhaps because icewine makes a lot of money for Niagara’s icewine producers?

On that note, the noble varieties are responsible for making the world’s most expensive and collected wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa and Tuscany.

The industry will quickly argue that the noble varieties are what the marketplace wants – and thus they are fulfilling a need. This is true to some extent, and many of the wines are indeed very good. I am not arguing the quality of these noble vines, except when they are planted in the wrong places (usually places that are too hot or sometimes too cold). In Canada, which is more like France than most other New world regions, many do very well indeed.

But back to the point, it’s not so much that the mass market wants the noble varieties, as much as it is these are the only grapes the mass market knows.  And why is that?  Most consumers readily admit to being intimidated and baffled by wine – by its scope, diversity, vocabulary and fashions.  So there is comfort in knowing just a handful of grapes, and hopefully liking the wines that some of them produce. The French nobles were simply first out of the gate.

The more educated we become however the more we want different flavours, styles, places, stories and grapes. And this is what the next generation is bringing to the discussion and eventually, I think, to the marketplace.  We longer term (senior) writers may tend to pigeon-hole the next gen of natural and orange wine advocates as hipsters making political and personal statements, but in fact – as in anything – there are those who genuinely care and those who have jumped on the band wagon.

Many people do thirst after meaning in wine. They are bored with replication and homogeny and are searching for difference and authenticity. And there are signs the movement is taking hold. We had our first flight of orange wines at the National Wine Awards of Canada this year, and most received medals. The very publication of “Tasting the Past” by a previously marginally wine-engaged writer is another.

The alt-wine movement is bristling around the world, while here in Ontario we remain relatively insulated, even sedated, by a retailer fuelled by past sales performance, not future trends. The Australian selection on this release is a ray of light. The Less Travelled Europe feature is a nod to the diversity out there, but it is half-hearted with only a couple of good wines therein. And the selection from Lebanon (arriving late on Sept 29) is a blend of syrah and cabernet.

Buyers Guide to VINTAGES Aug 18th

Native (Non-French) Whites

Forstreiter 2017 Classic Grüner Veltliner, Niederösterreich, Austria ($19.95)
David Lawrason – Gruner Veltliner is a popular Austrian white now reaching into cooler New world regions like New Zealand and British Columbia. This is a quite delicate, fresh and nicely fruited example with sweet peach/pear fruit, subtle spice, fine acidity and a touch of sweetness. There is sense of textural delicacy, with a dash of spritz.…


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And that’s a wrap for this release. John will be back next week to take the first release of the fall.

David Lawrason
VP of Wine

Use these quick links for access to all of our Top Picks in the New Release. Non-Premium members can select from all release dates 30 days prior.

Lawrason’s Take
Szabo’s Smart Buys
Michael’s Mix

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