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The Varietal Revolution

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Kramer is the author of several books, including "Making the Sense of Wine" (moorow, 1992)

When the moment arrives to trace the history of fine wine in the late 20th century, future historians will point to the role of varietals.

The word--the idea itself--is uniquely American. For centuries, virtually all European winegrowers labeled their wines either with a brand name (Chateau Merveilleux) or the name of the place where the grapes were supposedly grown (Chablis). Grape varieties were never mentioned on a label outside Alsace and a few regions in Italy, such as Piedmont and Friuli.

For most wines, the idea of labeling by grape name, such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon, would have been preposterous. Before World War II, only a handful of even the best-informed wine drinkers could have told you that a red Burgundy is made from Pinot Noir or that white Burgundy is a Chardonnay. And almost nobody but the winemakers themselves knew what goes into Chianti--namely, Sangiovese, among several other grapes.

So what caused the change? Mostly, it was American wine marketing, coupled with the vast post-war growth of the middle classes in Europe and the U.S. Many of these newly middle-class wine drinkers--including the Europeans--were new to fine wine. Their wine knowledge was scanty (Europeans) or nonexistent (Americans).

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American winemakers started labeling their wines by grape variety for much the same reason as the Alsatians after World War I. When Alsace was a German possession, it was a source of cheap, nondescript wines. By emphasizing the grape variety, Alsatian winemakers were declaring a dedication to something better.

In America, even the best wines plagiarized European place names. White wines paraded as “Chablis” and red wines as “Burgundy” or “Chianti,” never mind that they tasted nothing like the real articles. Other nations, including Australia and South Africa, did the same.

The influential American wine writer and importer Frank Schoonmaker deplored this practice and vigorously opposed it in books and magazine articles. Schoonmaker proposed replacing these fraudulent names with names of the grape varieties. Slowly, the idea gained force, though varietal labeling, as it came to be called, appeared in earnest only in the late ‘60s. Today, it’s so common that even Europeans are using it.

Now, however, you have to be familiar with more grape varieties than Schoonmaker probably ever envisioned. Ten years ago, only a very knowledgeable drinker would have recognized the name Viognier, or even whether it was red or white. Today many would recognize it as a white grape from France’s Rhone Valley.

How about Cinsault, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Marsanne, Melon, Cabernet Franc or Pinot Gris? Then there are the Italian newcomers: Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Tocai, Teroldego, Dolcetto, Aglianico, Verdicchio and Refosco, among many others. All of these, and yet more, have appeared on California labels.

To make matters more interesting, some of the American renditions of these grape varieties barely taste like the European originals. If you didn’t know the grape variety from the label, you’d have a hard time identifying many of the Sangiovese and Nebbiolo bottlings so far released.

In time, though, growers will put these grapes in sites where they’ll really perform. Then, of course, the varietal vice will just get worse. Already, so many California growers have become excited about Italian varietals that they have formed a promotional group, Consorzio Cal-Italia, which already has 50 members. The group’s inaugural public tasting is scheduled from 5:30 to 8 p.m. on Columbus Day, Oct. 13, at the Fort Mason Conference Center in San Francisco. Tickets are $25 per person. Call (800) 662-5240 for more information.

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1995 Montevina Winery Refosco (Amador County) ($8.95): In the 1880s, one of California’s most acclaimed red wines was something called Crabb’s Black Burgundy. It came from Hamilton Crabb’s famous To Kalon vineyard in the Napa Valley. Crabb’s Black Burgundy was, in fact, a variety called Refosco. (Today, the To Kalon vineyard is owned by the Robert Mondavi Winery and is the source of Mondavi’s celebrated Reserve Cabernet.)

Despite the decades-long fame of this so-called Burgundy, its informing grape disappeared from California during Prohibition. Refosco continued to be widely grown in northeastern Italy and sold there under its varietal name. But it did not return to California--until now.

Like most Amador County wineries, Montevina Winery was originally dedicated to Zinfandel, which was--and still is--Amador’s claim to wine fame. When it was purchased in 1988 by Sutter Home Winery (famous for sweet white Zinfandels), Sutter Home owner Bob Trinchero consecrated Montevina to Italian varieties such as Refosco, Nebbiolo, Freisa, Greco, Sangiovese Aglianico, Aleatico and Barbera.

This Refosco shows more than mere possibilities; it really tastes like Refosco. It’s a deep blackish garnet in color and has the solid fruit and dusty scent typical of a good Refosco (and so many other Italian red grape varieties). This is a Refosco that could easily have been grown in its mother country. The price is simply splendid: $8.95 a bottle.

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1995 Louis Jadot Pinot Noir (Burgundy) ($13.95): Europe has rightly stuck to calling its best wines by place names. After all, Chablis became famous precisely because its 100% Chardonnay wine tastes different from Chardonnay grown in any other spot, even elsewhere in its native Burgundy region.

Ironically, California is now finding the same thing for its own wines. This is why we’re seeing legally delimited wine districts called American Viticultural Areas. But place names work only for truly distinctive wines. For more general, commodity-type wines, place names are confusing. Varietal labeling is the ticket.

This Pinot Noir from Louis Jadot used to be identified as Bourgogne rouge, red Burgundy. The grape variety was never mentioned. Tradition (reinforced in this century by French wine law) dictated that a Bourgogne rouge is 100% Pinot Noir.

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But if consumers are looking for a Pinot Noir, French winemakers have lately been saying, why not tell them frankly what’s in the bottle, rather than making them puzzle over what, exactly, is a Bourgogne rouge?

Louis Jadot has decided in favor of clarity. If today’s market--especially, but not exclusively, Americans--want a varietal label, give it to them. After all, no place specificity is lost or betrayed. A Bourgogne rouge is a commodity item. It’s just everyday Pinot Noir.

Actually, this particular Bourgogne rouge is better than “everyday.” That’s because the ’95 was a terrific vintage in Burgundy, and that quality shows here. This is not a “fruit bomb” Pinot Noir. Rather, this is Pinot Noir as it should be: fragrant, delicate yet packing a stronger punch of berry flavor than its appearance would suggest.

Above all it’s a superb deal. Look for a street price as low as $10.95 a bottle. At that price, you’d have to look hard to find a better deal than this in really good Pinot Noir.

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