Vine varieties – like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah – predominately serve as terms for a given wine’s stylistic character. Varieties – in our world – are also still implicitly used as markers of quality; some are noble, some proletarian. One unintended consequence is a distortion of demand for fashionable varieties, revelations about the constraints on supply, and the inevitable degradation of value. Of course this feeds a cycle of fashion, and many of the good things we drink today arguably illustrate the benefits of this creative destruction.
Varietalism has always been a gross simplification. And now, in the age of DNA testing, we are beginning to learn just how misleading this regime has been.
It turns out Syrah was not brought to France from Shiraz, Persia by missionaries. Now we know it to be a crossing of Dureza from the Ardeche and Mondeuse from Savoie. In the modern era Dureza has almost been eliminated in France in an effort to “improve” regional wine quality. However, one of it’s variants thrives today in the lower Adige valley in Italy where it is called Teroldego.
The colloquial use of grape names bears within it an historical record – of exaggerations, myths, and wishful thinking – that reveals something essential about human behavior, and the disproportionate time scales of agriculture and consumer markets.
The post war California wine industry was ruled by a technocratic ideology which took for granted that only certain grapes were capable of producing value above and beyond the utilitarian virtues of sugar, acid and color. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir were encouraged and their farming practices scrutinized and regulated. As for “lesser grapes,” Pinot Blanc for example, or Petite Sirah, who really cared what these grapes were? Taste and testimony sufficed to identify these, especially considering there was no plausible motive for fudging. There is evidence that much of what is legally considered to be Pinot Blanc is really Melon de Bourgogne, and Petite Sirah may be any one of three or more grape varieties.
As a typical wine drinker, I am tempted to say “I like Mondeuse.” The fact is that of the few dozen I’ve drunk, I enjoyed them all. But I should point out the obvious fact that there is little incentive for producers to exploit demand for Mondeuse by issuing dull, degraded wine made with it. The demand doesn’t exist. Yet!
Keep blogging about it and see what happens.
I like drinking Mondeuse and imagining farmers in an era with no real written record, and no knowledge of DNA. They were reacting to climate changes by migrating resources, trying to produce wine that was durable and drinkable. Whether intentional or not, Mondeuse was crossed with Dureza, one of certainly thousands of crossings, most of which led to viticultural dead ends. But his one gave us Serine, a.k.a. Syrah, and Hermitage became what it is.
Please join me this Tuesday for a narrated tasting of beautiful Italian wines, mostly red, mostly under $20. Our first wine of the tasting will be a Dureza known as Teroldego. To me it tastes like beautifully focused black fruits and olives.