I had been drinking wine for many years before it occurred to me to think about it. It was 15 years ago, at my first wine tasting at the Biltmore Estate winery in Asheville. The taste of the Cardinal's Crest Claret—and the tasting room attendant's insistent reference to a favorable Wine Spectator review—persuaded me to plunk down $75 on a magnum of it. This was a considerable chunk of change for me, which would have been more prudently spent paying off my aging Toyota Celica, but after my brush with the claret I became enchanted with the idea that wine could be transformative. Sometimes it is wise to invest in your own imagination.
Along with the claret, I bought a slender, rectangular book, scarcely thicker than a travel pamphlet, titled Wine 101. The author was Gerald C. Hammon, and he promised that his book was "the first line of defense against wine snobs." I didn't know any wine snobs at the time, but I feared them nonetheless. My trepidation had kept me from purchasing wine anywhere but a grocery store until then. After my experience buying the claret and reading Hammon's book, I became emboldened. Wine 101 offered basic descriptions of the best-known varietals, explained what a wine's "nose" is and offered tips for deciphering wine labels. His advice concentrated on understanding what kind of grape a wine is made from, suggesting that his readers be grateful that American wineries make varietals the focus of their labels. "The French label their wine by region and sometimes only by producer," he wrote.
I stashed Hammon's booklet in a drawer some years ago, but I was reminded of it a couple of weeks ago. On our way to the grocery store on a snowy Saturday afternoon, a friend and I detoured to a wine shop for its weekly tasting. Afterward, we wandered the aisles of wine bottles, all arranged according to their country of origin. My friend lamented the fact, complaining that she only knows wines by the grapes they contain.
I tried to ease her discomfort by comparing the varietal-versus-origin designation to the Dewey decimal system's fiction-versus-nonfiction classifications. Libraries organize fiction alphabetically according to the author's last name and nonfiction by numbers that represent topics. While the fiction organization system is immediately easier to grasp, the nonfiction system isn't hard to understand once you get the hang of it, and it offers information that is much more precise.
Recalling Wine 101, I considered how our American insistence on labeling wines by varietal has thwarted our ability to appreciate terroir and probably hinders our exploration of wines from all over the globe.
Novice wine drinkers may get frustrated when they try to get comfortable with the taste of a particular varietal—my friend tends to fall back on pinot grigio—but they can't always rely on it. A pinot grigio from Chile will be different from an Italian one, due to the terrain and the weather that influence the grapes. I believe it's far more helpful to find a geographical comfort zone and explore within it. After tasting your way through enough of a region's wines, you discover their similarities and differences. Even if you've never been to the region, you begin to imagine it as you drink.
One prime example is Sancerre, a region of the Loire Valley in France that produces some of the most distinctive white wines on earth. I always order Sancerre when I see it on a menu, especially if it's listed as a by-the-glass option, which is rare. I've never had a glass of Sancerre that wasn't subtly fruity and floral. Sancerre is made of the sauvignon blanc grape, but to call it a sauvignon blanc would seem to diminish it somehow. I wouldn't want to have it confused with the popular, grassy, lemony sauvignon blancs from South Africa. I enjoy each and would recommend both at different times, but keeping the French incarnation connected linguistically to its point of origin is crucial.
Conversely, Americans are far too familiar with sticky-sweet German rieslings because distributors have flooded the domestic market with them in hopes of winning our soda pop-infused palates. But some of the best rieslings are delightfully dry, and many come from Alsace, a region of France that borders Germany. These are delicate creations that have as much in common with the grocery-store rieslings as Little Debbie does with feathery, handmade streusel. To explore Alsatian wines is to open a door to hundreds of manifestations of the riesling grape, all informed by the soil and weather of the region, as well as the legacy of hundreds of years of winemaking.
My varietal-bound friend told me she liked pinot grigio, but rather than searching for a bottle made from this grape, I grabbed a couple of bottles of Alsatian white—a riesling and a blend of popular grapes of the region. We loved them both, and she told me she'd remember the region.
After 15 years of thinking about wine, I may have helped embolden someone to make her own new discoveries. I vow to keep at it in case the opportunity arises again.