If the Grape Fits, Wear It
May 5, 2007
While there are many distinctions between the wines of the Old World and those of the New World, there is one that stands out glaringly on the label though its meaning goes much further than skin deep. You may notice that with the exception of a few regions in Europe the grape variety is nowhere to be found on the label where conversely it is an essential marketing tool for the wines of the New World. If you ask an American which type of wine he or she prefers the answer will be in the form of a grape; "I love Pinot Noir", or "I love Chardonnay," whereas a broad terminology when referencing a French wine would be, "I love Bordeaux," or "I love White Burgundy." While this may seem like a trivial juxtaposition, it is one that comes from a historical, cultural, and viticultural rift that contributes to the clear distinctions of these two poles of the industry.
Let’s use Burgundy and Napa Valley as examples to show some of the differences in the two thought processes. They are both known within in their countries to be the source of very fine Chardonnay. In the case of Burgundy the grape variety is never shown on the label (with the exception of generic Burgundy targeted at New World markets) but the specific region within Burgundy is written larger than anything else on the label, e.g. Puligny-Montrachet, Rully, Corton Charlamagne, etc. In the case of Napa Valley, the house that makes the wine is largest usually followed by "Chardonnay" then by Napa Valley, then only sometimes by a sub-region of Napa such as St. Helena, Rutherford, or Oakville.
The most significant factor affecting these styles is that Napa has less history in fine wine and does more experimentation with different grape varieties than Burgundy. The only white grape grown in Burgundy is Chardonnay so the grape variety is therefore implied and is not necessary to put on the label. It has long since been decided that Burgundy is the perfect place in France for the dry and crisp style Chardonnay that they produce. The Burgundy industry has become so reliant on this reputation that it would not only be untraditional, but also uneconomical for no one will by a Burgundy made of Sauvignon Blanc. Napa however makes white wines of Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay so there is certainly some distinction necessary. It does seem however that the Chardonnay grape is most at home in this ‘oh so perfect’ viticultural valley and it certainly fetches the highest dollar.
Culturally, the Burgundians seem to value the affect of the land on the wines more than the Californians and thus another major factor in label laws. The thought is that a wine from the district of Puligny-Montrachet is vastly different from its neighbor Montrachet because of factors such as soil, aspect, and microclimatic nuances. The focus in California seems to be more on the skill of the winemaker and the facility of the winery than the vineyards that fruit comes from. Therefore, the size of the house’s name on the label is more prominent than the region.
It is not my intention to say that one system is better than another but only to mention fundamental differences in which wine is produced. The subtle nuances between the various expressions of Chardonnay throughout Burgundy is clear while the Chardonnays of Napa are distinctly Napa though they express the winemaker more than the region. I suppose it is a pure matter of preference rather than quality.
Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in N.Y.C. and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .