What’s in a name?
Would a wine by any other name taste as good?
There are something like 10,000 grape varieties known to be used to make wine. But how many of those could you name?
In France alone there are well over 500 “appellations” recognised in law for wine production. The appellations range in size from large regions, for example Pays d’Oc, to single vineyards, the smallest, La Romanée, being less than a hectare in size.
The rules attached to each appellation vary, the bigger the region the more relaxed the rules, but may cover what grape variety can be used, through to how the wines are made and the vines farmed.
And that is before you take into account the innumerable wine growers, brands and sub brands. That’s a lot of names to remember and that’s just France. It’s no wonder choosing a wine can be baffling and that it is very easy to just stay with what you know.
Some names, for example Chateauneuf-du-Pape, have become familiar and built a reputation over time and come with expectations, which sadly are not always realised. Taking the system used in France as an example still, the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), which is equivalent to the rules that protect things like Parmesan Cheese, is only a set of rules but the wines are often produced by multiple wineries. Throw people into the mix, with their varying degrees of dedication, talent and experience and there is a lot of room for variation in quality, even if they tick the boxes and obey the rules. Other countries face similar problems.
Some names perhaps are bought to confer status on the drinker. Rappers love for prestige Champagne (typing the words Prestige Champagne, a trade term for expensive, well known brands, makes me wince a little) may not be reciprocated by the producers but there’s no doubt it helps sales.
Some wine producers have developed their own reputations, outside any formal AOC or other quality designation, which makes wine lovers eyes light up when they see them on restaurant wine lists or on the shelves in shops. Sometimes this is purely because of the quality of the wines they are producing but often, especially at the more natural end of the wine spectrum, it is also because of their pioneering spirit and individuality. Over the years I have managed to meet quite a few of these inspiring people and feel very fortunate to have done so.
So, how to deal with the confusion and drink well while exploring beyond your usual choice?
It can be fun finding a grape variety you like then trying wines made from that grape in different parts of the world. Sometimes wine growers work in different regions or different countries so if you like a wine they make in one place try them from another.
Or if a winemaker makes a wine you’d would sell your granny to drink but also makes wines in less fashionable spots, try them. Selling grannies is disapproved of, buying clever is sensible.
Burgundy is a great example of this. Wines from many of the most famous villages are unaffordable to most people except for very special occasions or oligarchs. But if a producer makes a Puligny-Montrachet you dream about drinking they may also make a more humbly labelled and affordably priced Bourgogne-Blanc from vineyards which lie outside the village boundary or vines that they feel are still a bit young to be producing at their best. If the grower’s name is on the label there’s a good chance it will be great and I’d rather drink a “lesser” wine from a talented producer than risk my cash on a big name wine made by an unknown.
And don’t forget to visit your local indie wine shop or bar, the tell them what you like and don’t like and let them take you on a little wine discovery tour!
Two to try - Cahors was known as the “Black Wine” for it’s deep ruby colour. But it was also known for its powerful tannin and potential or perhaps need to be aged for many years before drinking, waiting for those grippy tannins to become a little more easy going. Cahors is also the original home of the grape variety Malbec, which left home and went off and made a name for itself in Argentina. Here are two Malbecs, one from each side of the Atlantic.
Chateau Du Cèdre, “Cèdre Héritage”, Cahors, France - Welcome to the Malbec mother-ship. This is where it all began with Malbec and this one has that characteristic violet and herb nose and rich fruit on the palate. Wine making has changed now so Cahors is a lot more approachable than in the past.
Manos Negras, Artesano Malbec, Paraje Altamira, Uco Valley, Argentina - Made from Malbec grown on sandy, silty alluvial soils at over 1200 metres above sea level in the shadow of the Andes mountains, this is the kind of wine that made Malbec from Argentina famous around the world.
Both wines are organic and vegan. Available from Iron and Rose in Shrewsbury Market Hall, GlouGlou wine bar and online at ironandrose.com.
PS the keen-eyed and horticulturally knowledgeable will have noticed the image is of a peony which is not scented and not a rose though equally beautiful.