Seeing double

When writing ‘seeing double’ in a wine column it could well be expected that it would be a reference to the effects of over imbibing. Today’s post, however, is looking at the subtle complexities within wine education. When trying to understand any complex subject matter it’s best to have access to clear information, however, the further you look in to something, the cloudier it becomes.

This might all sound like I’m talking about peering through a glass of badly oxidised wine, but I’m actually talking about the curious double use of many terms, or terms similar enough to confuse the learner. It was whilst looking at a map of Spain last week, or more precisely at Galicia in the Northwest, I did a double-take, spotting that the capital city is named Santiago. Both in and out of the wine world, when you think of a capital city called Santiago you’re more likely to bring Chile to mind. “Fair enough” I hear you say, the Spanish Santiago is unlikely to come up in many wine texts, and so naturally is unlikely to cause confusion. Indeed, many places have the same name as others – here in Berkshire I live not 5 miles away from Hermitage, but I’m nowhere near to the famous French hill known for its top quality Syrah. So well known in fact, that when Syrah was imported in to Australia, they christened the grape variety ‘Hermitage’. Thankfully this confusion (and many others, such as the USA making ‘Burgundy’) were outlawed at the end of the 1980’s when French designation laws protected the name.

Herm2Herm         One Hermitage to another

In terms of other confusing place names there is Rioja. Any wine lover knows (and probably loves) their Spanish Rioja, but there is also another – La Rioja, and that’s in Argentina.

Regions can be a pain too; California has a Central region, but so does Chile. There’s also the Central Vineyards of the Loire. Let’s not forget Coastal regions; South Africa has one of those, and the Californian coast is split in to the North coast, North central coast and South central coast.

I’m reminded of the upset that followed a recent WSET exam when the question ‘write a paragraph about VDP’ came up. Many students naturally assumed that they would be writing about Vin de Pays, the classification for French wines that sits just above Vin de table. Imagine the surprise then when the results came back, which told them they were supposed to be writing about Verband Deutscher Prädikats, a German quality wine classification.

There’s always some initial confusion with Muscadelle / Muscadet / Muscat (I seem to recall a multiple choice question in an early WSET exam I took that looked to pick up on this). Muscadelle being a Bordeaux grape variety, Muscadet being a Loire Valley wine (made from the Melon grape), and Muscat being a widely used grape variety.

My pet peeve ‘double’ has to go to Italy where they have a grape from the Piedmont region called Barbera. The Piedmont region is also home to a wine called Barbaresco, and naturally enough you might assume that the grape makes the similarly titled wine. Not so. The Barbera grape is commonly used to round out blends, and Barbaresco is made from the Nebbiolo grape. Now, it was the Italians that thought that the sparkling wine Prosecco being made from a grape also called Prosecco was so confusing, that the grape variety was officially renamed to Glera. Personally, I think that the Barbera situation is just as confusing!

There’s doubtless many more doubles in the wine world waiting to trip us up. I’d be interested to hear of any that you’ve come across, or have had trouble with in the past.

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The ‘Lost’ wine region

For some time now I’ve been intrigued by the ‘Kimmeridgian Chain’ – numerous vineyards set within a belt of distinct soil (AKA Terres Blanches), that diagonally cuts its’ way across northern France (see picture below). The belt itself is a by-product of a geological feature known as the Paris basin – plates of land staggering progressively inwards. As part of this sagging process, a defined strata of land became exposed between two layers; an older Jurassic era ridge of crushed marine deposits, comprising a hard limestone top on a chalky marl base (marl is composed of lime-rich clay and silt). The name Kimmeridgian is said to originate from the village of Kimmeridge in Dorset,England where there is a well exposed coastline of similar age and soil composition.

map b

The distinct soil mix brings differing attributes to resulting wines, even those produced in the same wine regions, but not within the belt. In some cases, different grape varieties are used to compliment the soil variation. This being the case, why were these unique vineyards simply swallowed up in to other wine regions? Regions that are many miles away, across land not used for viticulture. Given that the French invented the concept of terroir – that the place is so important to the wines it produces – and that the French have the most delineated wine/land appellation system in the world, why were these areas not grouped together by themselves to form a new region?

Within this belt we find:

– The Aube – The southern vineyards of the Champagne region

– Central Vineyards (AKA Sancerre, Pouilly, and several other village sites) – The eastern end of the Loire

– Chablis – The extreme northern part of Burgundy

Parent region has had little effect on the reputations of world famous places such as Sancerre, Pouilly (as in Fumé) and Chablis. This fame though, is largely down to the unique expressions of the crisp white wines produced, and this stems from the unique soil. Chablis sits 75 vine-free miles north of the Cóte de Nuits in Burgundy, and the towns of Sancerre/Pouilly are about the same distance away from the next vines in the Loire. With the Loire valley being over 170 miles in length you will naturally find numerous grape varieties, soil types, and even climatic influences, but Sancerre/Pouilly find themselves planted over to Sauvignon Blanc/Pinot Noir as opposed to the main Loire white/red varieties of Chenin Blanc/Cabernet Franc. As the soils along the banks of the river have a greater composition of rock/schist compared to the chain, different varieties thrive. Co-incidentally, Decanter recently ran a feature on the red wines of Sancerre, suggesting they were more Burgundian in style, and unlike any red you would associate with the Loire.

In Chablis, they may use the Burgundian variety of Chardonnay, but they produce a very different style of wine. Chablis is widely respected for its crisp mineral whites full of refreshing acidity, and linear precision. This is streets away from the archetypal Burgundian Chardonnay; a deep brooding body with creamy/buttery textures from subtle oak barrel influence. Again this comes from differing production methods (favouring Stainless steel as opposed to barrel), and the unique terroir – the Chardonnay grape working magnificently on the cold limestone and clay.

It’s a different story when we look at the Aube in southern Champagne, as they haven’t yet managed to find real fame on their own merit. Just over 100 years ago, The Champenois – notorious for protecting their brand – drew up their permitted production zones, and excluded the Aube on the basis that their grapes were of a second standard (they had no Premier or Grand Cru sites). The Government even went as far as passing a bill to that effect but, unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down well with Aube vignerons, and the rioting that followed in 1911 saw a worried government hastily annul the original bill. The Aube were finally officially admitted in to the region in 1927, but their role has simply been to provide the grapes to round out Champagne blends. If the Aube vignerons hadn’t persisted in the uphill battle to be part of a region that was so dismissive of it, could they have pushed harder with their wines, achieving better than just producing grapes suitable to only form part of a blend? Being mainly planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both key components of Champagne, but having the clay based soil of the Kimmeridgian chain instead of the deep chalk found elsewhere in Champagne, they’re capable of producing a Pinot more Burgundian in style. A feature late last year by US publication Wine Spectator suggests that wines from the Aube are on the up, but time will tell.

Should these villages have historically clubbed together and formed a mini-region of their own to produce world class Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot and Chardonnay to rival their Burgundian neighbour? Perhaps, due to the fact that quality will always shine through, maybe it hasn’t mattered in which region they sit. It’s interesting to ponder.

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