W’s determine wine’s destiny.
What grapes were used? Where were they grown? When were they grown? Who made the wine?
This week: what and where.
More than 600 different grape varieties can make wine, but only 30 or so make wines you find in a store. The number appears larger because same grapes have a different name depending on where they were grown.
Grape variety—what—sets general parameters. Chenin Blanc makes light wine, usually with residual sugar; it does not make heavy or full-bodied wine. Gewurztraminer makes medium-to-full bodied, deep-colored, exuberantly floral wine loaded with flamboyant fruit flavors. No matter what the winemaker does, you will not confuse Chenin Blanc with Gewurz.
While grape variety sets general tone, where grape grew significantly influences how grape performs.
Malbec is classic example. A failure in Bordeaux, Malbec became an international success in Argentina. Zinfandel: ignored wallflower in native Croatia; voluptuous, paparazzi-pursued superstar in California.
Place is not just country or continent. Where grape grows remains important even to location in a single vineyard. Is it grown on side of the hill or in the valley, north-facing or south-facing slope, clay or sandy or stony soil? In Burgundy, where terroir (reflection of where grape is grown) is revered more than anywhere else, purists claim to taste difference depending on which vine produced the grapes. Well, maybe.
Next week: when and who.
• Alexander Valley Vineyards North Coast New Gewurz. Flamboyantly aromatic, tangy lemonade and apple. $10
• McWilliam’s Shiraz South Eastern Australia Hanwood Estate. Light, juicy, smooth, deliriously easy drinker. $10
• Seghesio Zinfandels. Zin masters: 2007 Sonoma County earned Wine Spectator Top 10 of year ranking; $24. Seghesio’s Alexander Valley versions also marvelous; $36. Taste, contrast terroir.