Don’t judge a wine by the grape on its label

The word “varietal” is among the most misused in wine.

Many people think of it as a synonym for “grape,” as in, “What varietals are in that wine?” Not to be pedantic, but that is wrong. Varietal is not a noun, it is an adjective. One may properly refer to a “varietal wine,” like a cabernet sauvignon or a chardonnay, in which the wine is made with a dominant grape variety.

This distinction pertains directly to our most recent topic, California grenache, in which we had one varietal wine, made entirely out of grenache, and two blends, in which grenache was one of several varieties in the wine.

Here at Wine School, we try not to be sticklers, but we do feel compelled to be accurate, if not exact. This is difficult when considering the leeway that California offers in its labeling rules, which require that a varietal wine contain at least 75 percent of that particular grape. In other words, a wine can still bear the varietal label “grenache” even if other grapes account for 25 percent. But if the blend includes less than 75 percent of grenache, it cannot be called by the name of the grape.

Before 1978, when that rule was enacted, a California wine could be called grenache or pinot noir if it contained just 50 percent of that grape. That offered too much wiggle room for winemakers to add inferior varieties.

Then, the federal government increased the required proportion to 75 percent, with states having an option to raise it even further. In Oregon, the rule is 90 percent, with the exception of cabernet sauvignon, which, because it is historically blended with other grapes, remained at 75 percent.

The Old World, for the most part, did not label its wines varietally, though certainly exceptions are easy to find — Alsace is an example. In France, it is understood that Chablis will taste different than Vouvray does, and those qualities were associated with the places. So no need to label the Chablis as chardonnay and the Vouvray as chenin blanc.

But midcentury California lacked the same long-standing geographical traditions that dictated a wine’s character. Often, California winemakers appropriated European geographical designations, calling their wines names like Chablis, Rhine wine, Chianti and Burgundy.

This did not sit well with Europeans or with American wine lovers, and some, like the importer and writer Frank Schoonmaker, urged California producers to identify their wines by grape instead. This, it was thought, would ensure that consumers knew what they were buying, while eliminating the inappropriate use of geographical references.

From the 1970s onward, this has become the dominant identification for American wines. It’s hard for many Americans nowadays to conceive of any other preferable method. Indeed, European producers who want to compete in the global marketplace, especially for inexpensive wines, have fought for the right to label their wines varietally.

This all leads to our topic: California grenache.

Of the three wines I recommended, only one is labeled grenache, the 2016 Les Enfants Terribles from Dashe in the Dry Creek Valley. The other two, the 2015 Jolie-Laide Rossi Ranch Sonoma County and the 2016 Donkey & Goat California Gallivanter, are blends.

One, the Jolie-Laide, gives an indication of its blend on the label, with grenache and syrah written in big letters, and viognier and muscat d’Alexandria in a subordinate font. But the Donkey & Goat does not list any grapes on its label, and information was not easy to obtain. This led to some confusion.

“The ’16 Donkey & Goat, referred to as a ‘red blend,’ contains no grenache,” said one reader, Caroline Moore of Eugene, Oregon, who wondered why it was included.

Actually, the Gallivanter does contain quite a bit of grenache, though I understand why some curious readers thought otherwise. In previous years, the blend was completely different; in 2015, pinot noir and syrah were used. But Jared Brandt, an owner of Donkey & Goat, told me that the blend was changed in 2016. That year, it was made with a plurality of merlot and a sizable percentage of grenache, along with syrah, mourvèdre and a few others “for fining tuning,” he said.

Brandt did not want to detail exact percentages. “Specificity is something we are trying to get away from,” he said. “As winemakers, we think that blends are often more complex and pleasing.”

Blending has a long and honorable tradition. In the old days, before winemakers had the science and technology to manipulate wines, having a palette of grapes with varying characteristics could do the trick.

In Bordeaux, the more tannic cabernet sauvignon could be just the thing to give spine to the often soft merlot. In Côte-Rôtie, a little bit of viognier may be added to syrah to elevate the aromas. Grapes rich in pigment, like alicante bouschet or the appropriately named colorino, have often been used to add visual depth to red wines deemed too pale by winemakers.

Blending grapes is a more natural, nuanced method of making up for deficiencies than, say, dumping in a bag of tartaric acid or powdered tannins. It’s also why it can be more difficult to make a monovarietal wine like Burgundy, where, except in very rare circumstances, the red grape must be pinot noir and the white chardonnay. In those cases, winemakers hope that the same grapes grown in different places, even in different rows of the same vineyard, will contain all the desired characteristics to make a complete wine.

Grenache is among those grapes that have historically been blended. It’s the dominant variety in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but seven other red grapes are permitted, and a vast majority of the wines (with some exceptions, like the highly coveted Château Rayas) are blends.

The 2016 Dashe, made entirely of grenache, was fascinating. It was balanced in its own right, packed with red fruit flavors, which were initially a bit jammy but tightened with exposure to air, becoming stonier.

Yet fruitiness was the dominant character, and as someone who does not generally gravitate to powerfully fruity wines, I couldn’t help wondering whether a blend might have diminished the berry-flavored wallop.

It drew contrasting reactions. Some readers, like William Barnier of Sonoma County — who drank the 2015 Dashe and is perhaps used to California wines with less acidity — found it a bit austere, though he liked it with a wild king salmon fillet.

Martin Schappeit of Forest, Virginia, likened it to “strawberry shortcake,” and Ferguson of Princeton, New Jersey, said she loved it.

The 2015 Jolie-Laide — with its blend of grenache and syrah, and tiny amounts of the aromatic white grapes viognier and muscat — seemed like a more complex mouthful, with the bright grenache fruit given depth by the dark, spicy syrah. It was earthy, lightly tannic and altogether intriguing.

The 2016 Donkey & Goat was lithe, juicy and focused, with precise flavors that balanced fruit with earth and energy. Some readers noted this quality. Dan Barron of New York called it “vibrant and electric.”

These three wines are obviously too small a sample for sweeping generalizations, but that will not stop me from offering a few thoughts. For one thing, I thought the three wines affirmed the traditional wisdom of using other grapes to harmonize with grenache. The 100-percent grenache Dashe was a fine, pure wine, but it seemed less complete than the other two. Would blending have given it more depth and a wider spectrum? Maybe.

The tasting also underlined a deficiency in the labeling rules, which perhaps encourages winemakers to reach that 75 percent threshold so they can give the wine the easier-to-market varietal label. You could argue that California merlot suffered qualitatively as winemakers often used too high a percentage of the grape in their blends simply so they could call it merlot. Only in a very few places, like the Right Bank of Bordeaux, can complete wines be made with that much merlot.

In California, it will not be easy to get away from the varietal label, as Brandt of Donkey & Goat knows. He is often asked which grapes are in a blend when they are not specified on the bottle.

“I like to say that it is whatever they want it to be,” he said. “It has been an uphill battle.”

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