Ramblings: Style v Substance (2 of 4)

Varietal definition

There’s a lot of energy in some quarters around “emerging” grape varieties. At first glance, this is intriguing because it gives us a view into what happens when you combine, say, Sangiovese with, say, the McLaren Vale. But how to judge the result? One’s expectations of character and potential quality from Sangiovese-based wines will in most cases have been formed by Italian examples. This might cloud one’s view not only of an individual wine’s quality, but of the potential for this combination and variety and region.

If we can break from the dictates of established styles, though, experimentation with different varieties could hold the key to understanding our potential as a wine producing nation. Indeed, it may expose combinations of region and variety that we’re simply not aware of today, and so illuminate a potential level of quality that surpasses our current achievements. And yet, for all this unexplored territory, I think a view of wine in terms of grape variety is fundamentally limiting. I’m aware that much of the conversation in Australia for a while now has been around varietal definition and, in the context of raising the quality bar across the industry, something like varietal correctness isn’t a bad lever to pull. But once you have a Cabernet that, we all agree, tastes broadly like Cabernet, then what?

I’ve seen the concept of field blends enter the marketing literature of late. Although field blends have been around for a very long time, it’s interesting to consider why, all of a sudden, they are gaining a perceived currency both here and abroad (especially in the USA) with wine consumers. My take is they form part of a broader trend towards “hands off” winemaking, where terroir is perceived to drive the character and quality of a wine, not the winemaker (of course this is a gross simplification). In the context of this conversation, though, field blends are especially relevant because, by their nature, they emphasise the vineyard above varietal composition. Even if it were possible to calculate the percentage of each variety in a true field blend, it would be quite beside the point. Wine is a product of its vineyard, full stop.

There are local precedents. The Lake’s Folly Cabernet, a long-established Hunter Valley label, eschews a purist view of varietal definition in the pursuit of a clearly defined regional style. This wine is a veritable fruit salad of grapes, yet year after year tastes resolutely of the Hunter Valley and, crucially, of itself. It is also a wine of the highest quality. That it tends to divide drinkers only adds, in my view, to its worth. Real personality, after all, always provokes a reaction.

The Unison Selection from the Gimblett Gravels sub-region of Hawkes Bay is a contemporary Kiwi example of terroir-driven style at its most distinctive. Deliberately reticent about its precise varietal composition, its makers prefer to emphasise their flagship wine’s integrated flavour profile above its constituent components. Here’s a wine that blends several varieties found in Hawkes Bay to achieve something that tastes purer than any single variety might.

And rightly so; varietal “correctness” can be the great leveller, but it can also detract from an inherently unique regional influence. Who, really, cares the exact percentage of each variety that goes into a favourite Bordeaux or Châteauneuf-du-Pape? The enduring character in these wines doesn’t come from rigid ideas around varietal blending (which, indeed, continue to change over time) but from broadly understood notions of style. I love the Unison Selection and Lake’s Folly Cabernet because they, first and foremost, identify with their respective regions, and use whatever mix of grapes is required to achieve their stylistic goals.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

2 thoughts on “Ramblings: Style v Substance (2 of 4)

    • Hey, I’m with you, both wines discussed above are blends of Cabernet and Shiraz (with other stuff thrown in, of course)! As you note, the nice thing about Shiraz Cabernet blends is that they are more or less indigenous to Australia (with some notable exceptions, as James Halliday points out in “Varietal Wines” ). More pertinently to my argument, if Shiraz and Cabernet together allow a particular terroir to shine more brilliantly, then bring in on.

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