The Diversity of Wine

Last week i was contemplating, over a glass of Francois Cazin’s Cour-Cheverny, i was contemplating, of all things, romorantin. Once widely grown in the Loire valley, romorantin has largely been relegated to making Cour-Cheverny in which it is the only variety allowed. That it still exists at all in the face of more popular and marketable grapes such as sauvignon blanc and chardonnay is a testament to the dedication of a handful of growers who still believe in a grape that almost no one has ever heard of.

A few days ago, while discussing some Loire valley wines on the old Winedisorder SFJoe, fresh off a trip to the Loire, said something intriguing. He spoke about a problem that has long troubled the AOC system in France, the dictating of rules based on purely economic or marketing concerns instead of long term decisions that attempt to derive benefit from France’s astounding diversity in both varieties and terroirs:

It’s kind of amazing–the powers that be are considering limiting the white Touraine AOC to Sauvignon Blanc. Some attempt at clarity of global branding against the kiwis or something equally idiotic. Rather than trying to celebrate their amazingly diverse patrimony.

Upon reading this i reflected back on the romorantin, a grape that could have easily gone the way of many other grapes that have been banned by various governing bodies over the years, or torn up in favor of fashionable grapes from recognizable regions. “What does Cabernet have to do with Tuscany?” to channel a question asked by a friend.

This is a foothold for grape diversity in a world that has become increasingly homogenized. Some of this is due to the tremendous loss post-phylloxera, but much of it can be blamed on the increasingly generic demands of marketing “brands” (be those brands a label, a grape, or a growing area) that insist on simplicity rather than diversity. One needs to only look at Rioja to see what is happening. Classic varieties are slowly being edged out by branded French (really international at this point) grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. In other parts of Spain traditional varieties like sumoll are not even allowed in the controlled wines from the region (Linda Violago wrote about this problem HERE last year). Is Rioja still Rioja if sauvignon blanc is allowed? Would Clos Ste. Hune still be Clos Ste. Hune if chardonnay was grown there? What if Emmanuel Reynaud planted merlot? Would we still have Rayas?

There is a flattening effect going on. This has been said time and time again, but it bears (at least in my mind) repeating. When i was contemplating this post i thought of the great EO Wilson and The Diversity of Life. This book is one that i can reasonably say, with a few others, changed my life for the better. In the book Dr. Wilson, who is a professor specializing in myrmecology, or the study of ants (the same root as that favorite word of mine, myrmidon), puts down an elegant argument for the protection of the planet’s biodiversity in the face of increasing modernization. It is a passionate, eloquent work that straddles the line perfectly between science and literature. Wilson’s argument, stated in my very un-EO Wilson manner, was that the beauty and health of the world is dependent on the continuing diversity of life, that things will begin to fall apart the more pieces we remove.

Perhaps the same can be said of culture, to make an argument i am not equipped to make. The more things we remove the less the whole is interesting and unique, and the less it will work. And since my particular point is wine, that is what i’m interested in as a tree amongst the forest. What will happen to the grand Chardonnays of the world without the humble aligote? Do we lose a sense of Rayas without someone bottling counoise? While we have erased much of the ugliest side of provincialism we have lost something in the race towards modernization. there is a balance to be struck that will take people smarter than i to make.

Of course, i must point out here, that some economic realities are too much to stand on principle. feeding families is more important than making sure your wine is traditional. Time marches on. Muscadet wasn’t always melon de bourgogne, things sometimes change whether we like or not.

A point and laugh moment happened in the wine world this week when it was discoved that E&J Gallo had been duped into buying (and then selling) 460 oil tankers worth of pinot noir from the Languedoc that was not anything remotely resembling pinot noir (full story here). What is instructive about this story isn’t the fraud, large scale wine fraud is common, but rather that no one seemed to notice that the wine wasn’t pinot noir. The image of “French” and “pinot noir” were more important than the actual taste of the wine. And why not? When a line in a movie can doom merlot to the bargain bin should we be surpised at this story?

Last year i had a chance to sit down for lunch with Australian vigneron Dave Powell from Torbreck. Dave is, to put it bluntly, a very blunt person. i can’t imagine anyone coming away from a converstion without a strong opinion of him, and neither love nor hate would surpise me. i for one enjoyed him. There was no bullshit or pretense. He answered every question i posed to him honestly and forthrightly, and didn’t seem to want to market anything to me. One thing we discussed was the fact that Australia was fast becoming the laughing stock for the serious wine world. Associations with cheap critter label mega-brands and ridiculous export policing were choking off the industry, and Australia was losing even it’s tenuous hold its own wine making traditions. To hear a new world wine producer from Australia lament the fact that he is seeing old growth mouvedre torn up for cabernet was eye opening to me. The same thing happened in California with old growth carignane, something that is highly prized now by a new generation of vignerons who are slowly rejecting the flattening pull of fashionable varieties.

The amazing old vines at Do Ferreiro in Spain
There is hope, however, for saving wine as a celebration of diversity of terroir and culture. the wonders of modernism are winding down. people are beginning to realize that progress for progress sake was misguided in many areas. There are still growers like Francois Cazin, making the old styles. People like Joel Gigou and Jacy Prey who have labored to save these old varities and once again get them accepted. People like the Foucault brothers and Lopez de Heredia who are making wines the way they know how because that’s how they have always been made. People like Thierry Puzelat who have never met a grape they don’t think can make a good wine regardless of the “brand” recognition. People like the vignerons in the Mosel desperately trying to save the terraced vineyards so vital to their wines. There are people in America and Australia and elsewhere in the new world who are trying to start making American and Australian wine again, instead of international wines. People like Alice Feiring and Levi Dalton and Joe Dressner and my employers at Terroir and the guys at the Ten Bells who have made it a mission to celebrate this diversity. People like me, i suppose, who enjoy these wines, this difference, this mind bending array of flavors from so many interesting wines from so many interesting cultures.

i guess my blog didn’t really need a statement of purpose, but if this is it i don’t mind.

~ by Cory Cartwright on February 10, 2010.

35 Responses to “The Diversity of Wine”

  1. “but rather that no one seemed to notice that the wine wasn’t pinot noir.”

    I been reflecting on this after reading Asimov’s post earlier today. I’m now wondering if Gallo did know, but too late and so decided to keep quite about it to avoid the negative PR. Think about it, wouldn’t you have done that if you were them?

  2. Just a guess, but I think “duped” may be far too generous for the Gallo crew.

    personally, i look around after the 2nd or 3rd oil tanker load if I really care about the outcome. Also, I probably don’t contract for 4x the total volume of production of my counterparties. But that’s all just a guess.

  3. great post.

  4. Thierry, thanks so much for reading. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

    I take the same tack as Joe on this one. Gallo didn’t care if the wine was pinot noir, they just wanted the label to say pinot noir. No one who drank the wine noticed that the wine wasn’t pinot noir either because wine made on this scale tastes the same anyway.

    • If you think about it, the big producers like Gallo got their start labeling wines “Chablis” and “Hearty Burgundy” without having anything in the bottle resembling these wines. It’s interesting to note that not much has really changed over the decades. And sad to note that in this economy, the sales of these bulk wines have increased. Not dramatically, but they’re still rising.

  5. Cory,
    I enjoyed your thoughts a great deal. I think about the joy of diversity, the gilding of the underdog, and the truism of tradition every time I pop the cork (or twist the cap, as it were these days). For the sake of adding to your already exhaustive list of altruistic producers, and for what it’s worth, I’ll say that Portugal sprang frequently to mind as I read this. These guys and gals have zero issues with not even knowing what’s in their ancient vineyards; they bottle wine made from upwards of ten varietals without blinking, and unabashedly bottle single varietal wines of distinctive quality regardless of whether the ‘market’ could even distinguish between a varietal designation or a proprietary moniker. Quinta do Vallado’s varietal bottling of Sousao comes to mind. What is almost exclusively a blending component–without question–this team has turned into a masterpiece of agro-hubris, not to mention faith in Portugal’s taste for indigenous flavors. Would that the rest of planet Earth had similar tendencies. Looking forward to more profound and pertinent thoughts on this, our addiction to what’s truly real and honest in wine these days.

  6. Hi, I agree with you entirely on your lamenting the ever- increasing loss of diversity. I belive that in La Rioja there are now only about 8 commercial varietals widely grown, while at the begining of the last century there were over 90!
    The same has happened in La Mancha and Madrid, where we are located. This Spring we are planning to plant/graft about 200 vines and we intend to select a local varietal that is ‘in danger of extinction’!
    The Spanish DO’s also restict the varieties that can be used under their label. A total waste of a rich and diverse heritage.

  7. Great post! On an optimistic note: Italy has huge ampelographic variety (more than France so I was told at my sommelier class) but recently lot of semi-obscure varietals have been championed e.g. Perricone, Passerina, Dindarella, Oseleta (nearly extinct in the 70s now “saved”). In 1960s we nearly “lost” Sagrantino for good… I can hardly bear of a world without Sagrantino…

  8. Great post Cory, keep up the good work

  9. Cory, Thanks for bringing this up. Several thoughts.

    The AOC are idiots and this is going to cement a wine revolution in france where without a doubt, VDT will replace quality and AOC will be dreck.

    Cour Cheverny (and Cheverny for what it’s worth, after all, they do grow chard there) have their own AOC for Romo so presumably that will stick. HOWEVER! I would love to see the whole appellation (tiny as it is) to revolt and go Vin de Table. Love it.

  10. Great post Corey! Keep it up!

  11. Wonderful indeed, your level of knowledge is wonderful. I am truly enjoying your blog.

  12. Perhaps you could have retitled this post as, “Wine, done in by its own success?”

    Take a look at current flagging beer sales. A drop in demand has led to greater diversity in the marketplace. Maybe what the world of wine needs is a continued worldwide recession. We’ll really be in trouble if market starts selling BBS’s (Beverage Backed Securities)

  13. Hi – found my way here via your mention in The Pour.

    Keep up the good work and keep up the faith. I found your article quite moving – as well as being timely and important.

    If I can offer you any humble encouragement I would say just this: After about 15 years of drinking wine very casually (ie: not knowing anything) I decided to get serious this year. It took me less than THIRTY DAYS to find – thanks to Eric, Alice, and esp Nossiter’s Mondovino – that system of the international style is a fools game. I write this as someone who can afford (somewhat) to play in that game. It’s not only a race to the bottom, it’s the antithesis of the enjoyment of wine!

    The things you write about in this article are dire – but you guys are doing great work and you are winning the argument. I am sure the hearts and minds will follow! Keep it up.

    All the best.

  14. Nice!!!

  15. Great post. I’m starting The Diversity of Life tonight, over a glass of 2007 Baudry Chinon.

  16. Millions of wine consumers out there are having the same ‘meal’ over and over. Perhaps a big cabernet made with over-ripe grapes and loads of new oak. Its reliable and they know what to expect. It could be from in California, Australia, Argentina, Italy, etc
    I agree with Alice that the VDT wines are a growing treasure trove for inquisitive wine lovers who want to expand their universe. Savignin, trousseau, romorantin, etc are great starting points for discovery. Importers like Savio Soares, Jenny & Francois and Louis Dressner are fighting the good fight by bringing in these wines and more. Thanks for a thought -provoking post, Cory!

  17. Cory As many have already said a fine post. When you say ‘There is hope’ I agree and with the Loire producers you cite. There are also others using varieties like Menu Pineau/Arbois. Also you see an increasing number of producers leaving the appellation system for the greater freedom now of vin de table. One small detail it is Jacky Preys. Best regards Jim

  18. Hi Cory, I recently started following you via Twitter.

    “And since my particular point is wine, that is what i’m interested in as a tree amongst the forest. ” You captured my daily battle living on the front lines…

    Congrats on The Pour support this week, I look forward to reading more.

  19. Great, thought provoking article. But I wonder, is it really true that diversity is on the wane? You’ve mentioned some anecdotes of growers ripping up more traditional varieties to replace with the more fashionable ones. But statistically, is that really a trend? Here in Paris, natural wines are kind of beyond a trend really, they’ve come and are there to stay, it seems to me. And terroir in NYC, followed by ten bells seems to indicate a growth trend coming, no? As wine knowledge in the US increases, doesn’t that mean that the small niche of people interested in more diverse wines will increase as well? I’m not really sure of the answer to that question, but for me a lot of times it feels like diversity is actually becoming more available to the average consumer. Aren’t there more natural wines available than there were 5 years ago?

  20. This post inspires strong feelings and while I am one who would embrace the diversity of life and especially wine, I don’t pretend to think that my way is the only way. I may never in the future buy a bottle of yellow tail or gallo’s misrepresented wines, but I did. When I was first discovering wine as a passion and hobby I must admit that these were options in my world. Now, 10 years later and with a career in the wine trade I embrace Romorantin, Sagrantino, etc. etc. We (in the wine business) have the privilege sometimes of being exposed to so many lovely varietals that drinking Cabernet sounds absolutely boring! It’s ironic that my passion for wine developed out of what I now would despise. So, while we would love to change the “hearts and minds” of those drinking wines such as Red Bicyclette, remember that they may be changing BECAUSE OF Red Bicyclette.

  21. BTW, it’s the young, the fresh Wine Disorder.

    Love,

    Joe

  22. Great read Cory.

    Do you think wine importers to blame for killing diversity? They are highly responsible for molding the palates of most American wine drinkers, forcing them to seek out European style wines? Yet these wines have provided many CA winemakers with great inspiration. A double edge sword for sure!

    I think our Humboldt Pinot Noir (native rootstock) shows lots of character (terroir) you don’t get anywhere else in the world; yet, it’s no easy sell.

    Maybe “Diversity” will be the new marketing thing (goodbye bio-dynamic).

  23. ngorevic,
    I think we’re at a turning point where people are beginning to realize what has been lost. It’s exciting but a lot of work still needs to be done.

    Dan,
    Winemakers have always done different cuvees for different markets. I think the problem is when a wine or an AOC becomes a brand rather than a culmination of work we lose what it was in the first place,

    SFJoe,
    Only when i’m there.

    Jim,
    Thanks for the comment. You’ve got a great resource over there:
    http://jimsloire.blogspot.com/
    and alot of what I have said comes from various threads I’ve picked up on in your writings.

    Alice,
    I think there is value to the AOC system if it is implemented correctly. I think there is definite value to preserving some wine traditions as is. However, a lot of it is complete bullshit that hurts rather than helps.

    Fabius,
    It’s a shame isn’t it. 90 varieties! Just imagine what has been lost.

    Thanks for all the great comments everyone.

  24. […] 12, 2010 · Dejar un comentario Toda la angloenoblogosfera anda muy feliz con un ensayo de Cory Cartwright en su magnífico blog, Saignée sobre la diversidad en el mundo del vino y lo tremendamente fácil que es cargársela. Me […]

  25. Great writing Cory, damn good observations. I only hope we are at a turning point as we all know a lot has been lost. Diversity should rule again someday. Too bad most of the bigger companies, regardless of ownership, want to treat this wine biz like a consumer packaged goods business. It all is about the profit not about the principal. I pass on garden variety wines…best way to get even. Had a furmint this week Ha!

  26. I’ve seen this up close & personal on my travels through Romanian searching for native grapes. Many natives are perilously close to disappearing as vines are replanted with international varieties to make up for all the high-yield nonsense communists planted. It takes a market and a mission by the vineyard owner to save them. If Romanians don’t think the unpronounceable natives varieties have a market, they plant pinot noir, cab and shiraz. There is a also a cultural element that Romanians want to share the natives with others. They just don’t have the confidence. I am endeavoring to import only native varietals and find that people who love wine are more interested in trying them than another shiraz, except my baby boomer aunts. The diversity is a winning argument as it’s good for the soil, the wine and the culture. great blog

    • Thank you. Keep up the good work. The Romanians and Georgians and Greeks will once again have a voice in the wine world with their own wines.

  27. Great post that sums up some of my greatest fears and highest hopes about the true future of wine, and in a bigger picture, the world. Wine has been a victim of it’s own popularity, with the most popular and the most obscure suffering alike. The popular have their true varietal characteristics buried in international styling (Riesling in the 70’s, Cabernet in the 90’s and Pinot Noir most recently) until people grow sick of the style and move on, and the unknown are tossed aside, seen as unprofitable. It takes real iconoclasts that are willing to place their belief in a grape and a region to keep the tradition alive. It also takes an educated public to know the difference between an agricultural product and something real. Education given by information that posts like this and The Pour supply.

  28. Lucky to have stumbled on your blog, Cory, it’s quite wonderful. But then, hard to imagine someone who enjoys hunting for strange wines and cooking thinks in creamy sauces so much could not have interesting things to say…
    On your comments on diversity in wine and culture, I couldn’t agree more. But isn’t it in the logic of diversity that it simply cannot be appreciated until it is disappearing? Much in the way that it made no sense for a butcher to advertise “homemade sausages” until the rise of industrial meat production made this worth pointing out.
    But instead of pouring out more lame cultural-studies-wisdom here, I will now read some more of your blog.

  29. Well said! It is this diversity, and the relationship of wine to place, that make it interesting to me. Advocates like you will help to keep that way, I hope.

  30. it always keeps going back to a sense of time and place…its the only logic

  31. Celebrating with wine at all Ocation.
    Is good to taste it at all time, Happy Valentine’ People.
    Bezos, Muaxxxxxxxxxxxx……

  32. At my age, one mourns the loss of diversity both here in Europe and in America. I once attended an exhibition in California called ‘The Death of the American Farm’ that eloquently illustrated the influence of supermarkets on dwindling varieties of vegetables and fruits….The fabled number of cheeses here in France grows smaller every year.
    Thank you for your thoughts.

  33. Thank you Becky. Of course the loss of diversity extends to other agricultural products as well. It’s good to know that seed saving/trading is very much a part of some peoples traditions and that heirloom varieties are back on the rise.

    – Cory Cartwright

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