Monday, May 6, 2013

Variety as Regional Identity

At the Drink Local Wine conference in Baltimore last month one of the panels discussed the idea that Maryland should have a signature grape variety. One person said chambourcin, another said cabernet franc and yet another suggested red blends. In Europe, wine regions are known for specific varieties. Burgundy is pinot noir. Barolo is nebbiolo. Brunello is sangiovese. Of course, these identities were curated over hundreds of years, but they are also dictated by law. Outside of Europe, many other regions are also known for certain varieties. Napa is cabernet sauvignon. The Willamette Valley is pinot noir. Barossa is shiraz. Argentina is malbec. This of course is an over simplification, but these generalizations make some sense.

The reason for regional varietal identity is two-fold. First, those grape varieties reach their pinnacle in those regions. It is no coincidence that through trial and error certain varieties' environmental tolerances were found to perfectly match the environmental characteristics of specific regions. Second, having a keystone variety also gives a region something to rally around. It is easy for consumers to associate high-quality pinot noir with Burgundy, Oregon or the Russian River Valley (and vice versa). These associations help wine regions in marketing terms, and yes, marketing is an important aspect in producing the "best" wines. Not having a signature variety might mean a region has no identity.

I've long said that Colorado could make cabernet franc its signature variety for wineries to rally around. The 2013 Colorado Governor's Cup Wine Competition was held last week and not surprisingly twos cabernet francs were among only four wines to earn Double Gold medals and one of those cabernet franc was named Best in Show. In fact, last year The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey's 2009 Cabernet Franc won the Governor's Cup (no, it did not defend its title). But does having a keystone variety make sense? Do the wineries in southern Oregon appreciate the Oregon wine "brand" being pinot noir?

Outside of Europe, most regions are planted to many different varieties. Sure, the Russian River Valley is known for pinot noir, but other varieties like syrah and sauvignon blanc are grown there with great success, too. A while back I had the 2011 Gary Farrell Sauvignon Blanc.Sauvignon Blanc doesn't often come to mind when one thinks of the Russian River Valley. Yet, this was a lovely example of the variety. It was filled with citrus (more lime than grapefruit), green apples, vanilla and floral aromas and flavors. There was just a bit of the cut grass characteristic many associate with this variety, but it was barely noticeable. It is a bit pricey, at $25, but still a very nice wine.

Just last night, I drank a Napa Valley wine, but it was not a cabernet sauvignon. In fact, it was an exceptionally interesting and tasty blend of tocai friulano, ribolla gialla and chardonnay. The 2011 Massican Annia is a low-alcohol, savory alternative to Napa's full-throttle, fruity cabernet sauvignon. Sure, I often enjoy those big Napa reds, but I don't usually find them as mentally stimulating. Just thinking about why on Earth someone would grow ribolla gialla in Napa (I implore you to read the entire 7-part Ribolla Gialla University series by Lily-Elaine Hawk Wakawaka) and then blend it with tocai friulano and chardonnay when they could make more money by simply planting cabernet sauvignon makes me enjoy a wine more than just its pure hedonistic qualities. And despite what some people claim, wine is more than just hedonism.

So, in summary, I do think having a signature variety can be extremely beneficial for wine regions. But just copying another region's identity isn't going to work in today's market. At this year's Governor's Cup there were more cabernet sauvignon entries than any other variety. Yet, I don't think Colorado can be known for cabernet sauvignon when Napa and Bordeaux already have staked that claim. Cabernet franc or petit verdot (another Double Gold winner, by the way) might make sense, however. I think Colorado is ready to have a varietal identity other than fruit wines. But more importantly, I think individual wineries need to have an identity. Having brand recognition might be just as important as a regional identity. More on that idea later this week...


  1. Good points Kyle. Colorado does need to figure out what works best to grow and move beyond the experimental phase. After below 10 degrees and virtually 100% survival with our plot of Cabernet Franc- anyone thinking of planting grapes in Grand Valley AVA should strongly consider Franc (and Petit Verdot for that matter, as well as other cold hardy varietals). I also think that blending is a great way to make a brand and/or region stand out as unique, showing you can do something great with the wine and the varietals take a back seat to the overall impression made by the wine. One other thought: dry Rose's could be the next great thing to come out of the Colorado and American wine scene.

  2. Brooke, I think petit verdot and cabernet franc could be co-signature varieties for the Grand Valley. Perhaps syrah could too, but the N. Rhone Valley, Australia, California and Washington already have a pretty strong claim to that variety. Blending is key, but that 25% leeway with varietal labeling can go a long way. Many, many Napa cabernets are actually blends.