Varietals, or single grape wines, are increasingly popular. People who feel lost when confronted with a wide choice of wines tend to feel less intimidated if they can recognise something on the label, such as the name of a grape.
But it this a good thing, or is it just a dumbing-down of yet another aspect of our global culture?
Single-grape wines have the advantage of reducing the number of names a consumer needs to remember: cabernet-sauvignon, syrah, pinot noir, and so on. Some have achieved AOC status, such as Riesling, Gerwürztraminer (a sweeter, more fruity wine than Riesling), Alsatian Tokay (made from pinot gris grapes); there are also the various Muscat wines, but these are made from different varieties of muscat grape.
Personally, I find Riesling overly bland, although I enjoy the occasional glass of Gewürtraminer or Muscat – the latter is very sweet and best taken as an aperitif. However, on the whole single-grape wines tend to lack a certain something, usually body, and are often single-dimensional, bland and unexciting. This is why over the centuries European winemakers have preferred to blend different varieties of grape to produce more balanced wines that keep longer.
Blends are often made principally from one type of grape, tempered and augmented by the addition of smaller proportions of other varieties. Each region has its characteristic blends: that’s part of the AOC label. While not being a foolproof guide to quality, any more than possessing a piece of official paper is a foolproof sign of professional competence, it’s nevertheless a pretty good indication of being worthy of serious consideration.
And to be honest, the system isn’t as complicated as some would have you think. You know your own tastes: what sort of varietal wine do you prefer? All we need to do is match that up to the regions using a high proportion of that grape in their wines. Here are some examples of quality wines made from varieties frequently found as single-grape wines :
Syrah: Northern Côtes du Rhône (e.g. Côte Rôtie, Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage )
Pinot noir: red Burgundy
Chardonnay: white Burgundy, Champagne
Cabernet sauvignon: red Bordeaux, Médoc, and many South-West French wines
There, it’s not that complicated is it? I really do urge you to try the traditional blends rather than varietals. In fact, even when a traditional wine is a varietal (e.g. white burgundies like Chablis), it’s usually better than the stuff with the name of the grape in big letters on the label.
For those of you who’ve ever been foolish enough to ask for a cup of tea in a French café, the difference between that and real tea is comparable to the difference between a wine made from traditional local grape blends and the single-grape labels for the œnologically illiterate. Even if they do come from an otherwise good producer reluctantly bowing to market pressures (that’s you) to sell the stuff. It breaks their hearts to do it, as well. Stop being cruel to them and yourself, try a traditional wine!
Addendum: After a trip to the UK which gave me a scary sample of how many people sink alcoholic catpiss in large doses, I urge you to also try drinking wine out of a wineglass (about 10 cl, never fill more than 2/3 full) rather than a 25 cl beer glass, for crying out loud. If your wineglass is bigger than the glass you use to drink water, there’s something horribly wrong in your life.
N.B.: I have deliberately avoided mentioning VDQS and Vin de table classified wines above. Anyone can produce Vin de Table, so what you get is very much pot luck, whereas VDQS classification is earned and therefore subject to a certain number of rules. Don’t hesitate to try either if you’re doing a tasting at a wine producer’s, you may be pleasantly surprised.