When I teach tasting classes, I usually bring varietal wines — that is, wines that are made from a single grape, and labeled as such. I do this for a few reasons. First, because that’s how most of us think about and buy wine in the U.S. The grape is almost the “flavor” of the wine, so that “Chardonnay wine” is like lemon-lime Gatorade, strawberry yogurt or sour-cream-and-onion potato chips. I’m not going to get all Michael Pollan on you here, but Americans eat a lot of processed food and don’t always know where our food comes from, therefore it’s easier to sell us stuff based on “flavors” than on geographical origin, the basis for wine labeling in Europe.
Plus I focus on varietals because it’s a lot easier. In the U.S. we’re so fortunate to have an incredibly varied supply of wine from all over the world, but the choice can be overwhelming. I try to make this choice a little more manageable by focusing on the grapes that show up throughout the wine-producing world, like Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. No beginning wine student wants to hear that Italy is home to 2,000 indigenous grape varieties — and most of these names will never show up on a wine label. And I like to think that by showing people how the same grape can produce such diverse wines — by comparing say a German Riesling and an Australian one — I’m showing them how many other factors, from climate to soil to cultural traditions, play a part.
But is that enough? I’m beginning to think that I should spend more time on blends and unusual varieties. This great article on JancisRobinson.com, hands down my favorite wine Web site (and sadly one you have to pay for — although this article is free) profiles South African winemaker Eben Sadie, who argues in favor of more blended wines. The article is pretty inside baseball, but it makes some points that are relevant to the everyday drinker: basically, blended wines can be a lot more interesting than single varietal wines. The consumer fixation on the varietal, rather than country or place of origin, means we trade off complexity for convenience. I don’t know if I buy his entire argument, but it made enough of an impression on me that I’m going to include more blends and unusual varietals in my next tasting.