Once upon a time, wines bore the name of where they came from, and perhaps a vintage. Producers, single vineyards and types mattered less than the all-important place. This labeling system cemented the reputation of wines we all know: Chianti, Bordeaux, Champagne. Each of these regions built around their style, with the best wines expressing the place. It's not that a sparkling chardonnay/pinot noir blend isn't good; rather, ordering a bottle of Champagne is way sexier. When you buy wines from established regions you (hopefully) purchase a taste of history along with a bit of good juice. Cahors tastes the way it tastes because grapes grown there (which are mandated by law and have some special affinity to that place) react to, and reflect, that particular place. This is more than just dirt. Centuries of trial and error, luck and natural mutation created the perfect grapes for classic wine locales.
A great example of this comes from the aforementioned Cahors. Malbec (also called Cot) is the primary red grape there. Malbec is now quite famous as a varietal wine from Argentina, where the wines may taste almost nothing like their French parents. Wines of Cahors taste like, well, Cahors. Were they labeled as the Malbec/Merlot blends they are (with a punch of brawler, Tannat), most of us would be shocked by the flavors present in the bottle. Producers in Cahors attempt to make the essence of their place, where the Argentines aim at making the essence of Malbec.
This 2,000-year head start in finding what grows well where forced crafty producers in the new world to sell not by place, but by type. Yes, some sneaky individuals borrow names of traditional regions, but these wines always lack the soul of the original. Varietal labeling allowed the creation of cross-company brands. Remember Chardonnay and Merlot (you mean white and red, right?), the two towers of pre-Sideways, pan-Asian, Ming Tsai, powerhouse, hipster Kali-fusion cooking? Consumers now could feel comfortable ordering the "brand" they liked best from among all other sub-brands of post-colonial wine. Besides, Chardonnay is way easier to say compared with Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet, and having one grand Chardonnay lowers expectations of the consumer who only wants something familiar. Yes, some were better than others, but varietal labeling helps consistency shine through.
Growers began backpedaling on strict adherence to varietal labeling after that pesky Internet allowed rampant access to accurate information. Consumers, now armed with the latest and greatest oenological insight, demanded to know where their wine came from. Most wines of quality production now carry some indication of where (beyond just country) grapes within the bottle grew. Some wines even say which five rows from one parcel in a vineyard that particular wine came from. By and large, more information led to consumers wanting new experiences and better wines. Strangely, this period of homogeny facilitated this transition toward reserve bottlings, vineyard designations and non-varietal bottlings. Armed with a security blanket of familiar grapes, buyers felt secure in trying narrowly delineated wines.
Name as many grapes as you can. I bet most readers of this column can pull eight or so out of their craw without much effort*. For established wine regions, this makes selling wine easy. You can somewhat compare a Cabernet to a Merlot and a Pinot Grigio to a Pinot Noir. The New World Wine Industry, through market saturation and some clever foresight, created consumers quite willing to try new products, as long as those new products fit in existing parameters.
Vignerons in Illinois must duel the dual challenges of zero track record and unknown products. No, they are not so lucky as to have inherited a multi-millennial wine heritage full of worldwide esteem. And their grapes sound funny. Well no more funny than Zibibo, but you get the point.
So today I champion Vignoles (vin-yole), a grape that I think will prove to be a star for Illinois. Jean Francois Ravat is credited for creating this grape sometime in the early twentieth century. He wanted to breed new hybrid grapes with a distinctly "burgundian" character. Regardless of his intentions, his creation offers northern growers a very cold-hardy vine capable of withstanding our most severe winters. For me, the real attraction is in the wine made.
Vignoles packs serious aromatic punch and makes mouthwatering wines in many styles. Even when dry, I find scents of pineapple, cinnamon, peach, nectarine, tea and orange blossom. And since no one style exists statewide, there is likely a Vignoles for you. Some producers make wines into icewine-like nectars, and others treat this like a full-bodied white. It seems to take oak well, so there are a few chard clones out there, too. My current favorite is the wacky offering from Mackinaw Valley Vineyards that is completely unique. August Hill, Massbach Ridge, Pheasant Hollow and Spirit Knob also make yummy bottlings. Fair warning, most of these are sweet. So think Spätlese-styled wines with lots of baked pineapple and ripe apple notes. I want to see a producer take these richly endowed grapes and make a dry, trocken-like wine that finishes completely dry. Vignoles can make world-class dry whites given the chance.
So get out there and try some. Don't be put off if your first experience with a new grape is lackluster. Sometimes you just need to find the right one.
*My spouse came up with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sangiovese, Viongier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewurztraminer and Cabernet Franc ... she sweated a bit.
Photo by Sam Vandegrift