A question recently came up in our Los Olivos tasting room that reminded us that like anything else, learning about wine is a process. As we prattle on about our wine’s taste profile, and the unique terroir of the Santa Ynez Valley where our fruit grows, we sometimes forget that our speech is laced with jargon. Just as one cannot expect a non-laser person to know the differences between a CO2 laser and an Nd:YAG laser, or a non-philosophical person to know the basic tenets of perspectivism and eternal recurrence, one cannot assume that people who are new to wine automatically know its history and details because they crack open a bottle or two and like the taste of it.
The question that precipitated this thought was What do people mean when they refer to a Burgundian wine? And while this particular question has many layers of answers: from winemaking style to grape ripeness and flavor profile, we’re going to start more simply with wine regions. We’d like to share some Wine 101 basics with you, and ensure that rather than making wine enjoyment pretentious, we make it fun. Please let us know if there’s a particular subject that you would like us to address!
The vine varieties in Santa Barbara Wine Country (and frankly, most American wines) derive predominately from three French wine regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Rhone. Each of these regions produce red and white wines. Why these grape varieties? The decision of which grape varieties to plant in a particular vineyard comes down to the soil composition, drainage, temperatures, wind, and exposure to sunlight. What’s optimal for Pinot Noir is likely not optimal for Cabernet Sauvignon.
We’ll start with Rhones, because its star, Syrah, is my favorite variety. The Rhone Valley lies in southeastern France, with the Rhone river running down its center. Famed for its Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne, the northern Rhone is notable for its steep slopes, which force vines to work hard to produce their fruit. The red grape varieties of Grenache (called Garnacha in Spain and South America), Carignan, Cinsault, and Mourvedre, and the white grape variety Ugni Blanc are found in the southern Rhone. Here in Santa Barbara County, we see Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache, and Mourvedre more than the other Rhone varieties.
Next is Bordeaux. Located in the southwestern portion of France and Bordeaux is home to some of the world’s most highly acclaimed wines. What are the vine varieties of Bordeaux? For the reds we have: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carmenere; for the whites we have: Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. When people refer to a red Bordeaux blend or a red Bordeaux-style blend (the French get touchy when we drop the word ‘style’), we’re talking about red wines that are blended from several of the aforementioned grape varieties. A typical red Bordeaux-style blend includes some or all of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot, and possibly Malbec or Carmenere.*
Burgundy (Bourgogne in French) is located in the eastern portion of France, and unlike Bordeaux, it is intensely focused on only two grape varieties: Pinot Noir (red) and Chardonnay (white). It does include the lesser red, Gamay and the lesser white, Aligote, but here in Santa Barbara Wine Country, as well as in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, we too focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The white grape variety Pinot Gris (also called Malvoisie, and Pinot Grigio in Italy) is associated with Burgundy, but is more predominant in Alsace. So if you’re at a dinner party and someone offers you a white Burgundy, and you’re a Chardonnay lover, by all means answer yes!
Of course we have many other grape varieties in the U.S., but we thought we’d start with the more predominant ones first.
Andrew Murray: Owner and Winemaker at Andrew Murray Vineyards
* – From Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine…An excellent tome to have on any wine lover’s shelf.