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International Varieties: Are They Intended to Reflect their Origin or are They Made to Please?

In my last post, I highlighted an ‘international’ grape variety, grown in Spain, made in Spain, but not allowed to say which region it’s from because the local Denominacion de Origen (DO) doesn’t recognize Viognier as part of its ‘terroir’. Whether this is fair or not is a difficult question – just what does a grape have to do to be allowed in a region? For the most part, it seems it has to have been there, on the spot, on the ground, as it were, for longer than living memory. Which is fine.

In the case of Norrell Robertson MW’s Viognier – good as it is – it hasn’t been there long enough. And that might just about seem justifiable. It’s a shame that such a good wine doesn’t have a region classification, but not everyone makes good wines from Viognier. Even the Rhodaniens struggle. But then I would point you to the fact that La Mancha, for example, allows Pinot Noir. Which is grotesque. It’s like putting a supermodel on a prison ship – there are no happy endings and it won’t be for public consumption.

So let’s turn to Rueda.

Now Rueda, in southern-central Castilla Y Leon, already has a lovely indigenous grape. It’s called Verdejo. It also allows Sauvignon Blanc, the Barry Manilow grape variety (a crowd-pleaser that tours the world with numerous facelifts). To be fair to the Rueda DO, there are pretty clear rules about the labeling and use of Sauvignon Blanc in the region. This particular wine – Finca La Collina – is 100% Sauvignon Blanc and so sports the grape variety proudly (?) on the DO sticker on the back of the bottle.

The thing about international varieties is that their use falls strictly within certain parameters. Firstly, they should be good: there’s no point allowing these varieties if they’re not drinkable. Secondly, they are – I think we all agree – slightly ‘removed’ (in our minds) from their region of origin: they might grow Sauvignon Blanc in Rueda, but it isn’t really Rueda. And here is the big problem with international varieties: are they made to reflect their origin or are they made to please? Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, for instance, just about makes it onto the ‘origin’ bandwagon (with one foot still on the ‘quaffable’ road). If I’m honest, I don’t believe Viognier will – in my lifetime – really ‘be’ Calatayud (no matter how much I think it has the potential to be).

What is perhaps unfortunate is that these wines try all to often to please us. Which is, I think, what La Colina is doing (a big, fatty, ripe style of Sauvignon). So maybe I shouldn’t judge it as Rueda but as a ‘first on the list in a wine bar’ wine. The problem is that, as well as ‘Sauvignon Blanc’, it also says ‘Rueda’ on the label.

Vinos Sanz, Finca La Colina, Sauvignon Blanc, Rueda, 2008

Ripe, grassy, very Sauvignon Blanc nose (tinned asparagus, etc) that ventures into the tropical with mango and passionfruit notes. A crowd-pleasing style that’s quite broad and weighty with a textured finish. A ripe, quite heavy, style of Sauvignon Blanc (serve blind to friends and ask them to guess where it’s from). I really do think Rueda should leave Sauvingon Blanc and stick to Verdejo.

Oliver Styles
  • Vserna

    Let’s be a little fairer. Vinos Sanz makes a stupendous Finca La Colina Verdejo Cien por Cien, and makes a lot more of it than of the SB. There’s room for both. The amount of SB made in Rueda is quite small compared with verdejo, and indeed it’s as fat (but not cloying as Napa SB) as Marlborough SB is vegetal. Because it’s from a warmer place, and from limestone: not like Entre-Deux-Mers, obviously. Slowly a Rueda personality will emerge, and that’s it. Who quibbles in France about Bordeaux or Loire SB being more authentic or better?

    • Oliver Styles

      Victor – and I’m assuming it’s you! – I think people quibble a lot about ‘authenticity’ even within, say Sancerre or Pouilly Fume. In fact, the wine writing world is full of such quibbles. Without them, it becomes very difficult to talk about wine.

      I tend to be careful when comparing Loire to Bordeaux, though, because quite a lot of it is a blend with Semillon (to my mind almost a different wine in many cases) and which is utterly fantastic. But sure, there is great Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc (I have to admit a lacuna in my mental database in that I can’t think of a great Entre-Deux-Mers Sauvignon – I would be more than happy to be pointed in the direction of one or two – my white Graves addiction is not healthy). But I digress.

      I’m not comparing Rueda Sauvignon with somewhere more ‘authentic’ – I’m trying to judge it as a Sauvignon and as a Rueda (the two issues I allude to in my post) and seeing if it ‘works’ on either field. To me, it doesn’t.

      Taking the latter point, what I’m saying, in effect, is that I don’t think there’s much future for Sauvignon Blanc in Rueda – a point on which we obviously disagree. I like Bordeaux ‘Sauvignon’, I like Loire Sauvignon, I am even occasionally partial to Marlborough Sauvignon (but please don’t tell anyone) – I just don’t think much of Rueda Sauvignon. Now, that might be unfair or unjust or close-minded, but there it is. That’s a generalisation, of course, but so is saying that a Rueda personality will – one day – emerge.

      Maybe Vinos Sanz makes a great Verdejo but I’m reviewing one wine, their Sauvignon Blanc. That might seem unfair but I have a limited budget.

  • Ken Payton

    Good piece.

  • http://vinosambiz.blogspot.com Fabio (Vinos Ambiz)

    There are other factors to consider too! For example, there are many local grape varieties present in all DOs that are NOT allowed, and we have to ask ‘why not?’ It’s perfectly possible to make good (or at least decent) wine with almost all grape varieties; perhaps even a great wine, but we’ll never know, as the regulations focus on promoting international varieties and prohibit native varietes. All DO’s policies are aimed at guaranteeing a minimum standard of quality, but it’s also a commercial strategy aimed at maximizing  profits. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, just that there is another side to the coin: for example, native grape varietes becoming ‘extinct’, excessive regulation in the vineyard, excessive regulation in the winery, narrow acceptance criteria by the tasting panels, etc all of which limit the possibilities of producing wines that could be interesting, express the teroir of the locality, etc.
    In answer to the question, I don’t think there is any doubt that DO wines are designed to please! The very regulations force a winemaker (if s/he wants the backlabel) to make a more orr less standardized wine.
    Lastly, does anyone know just how long does a grape variety has to be present in a region before it’s considered native? Who’s to say?

  • Anonymous

    Question, Rueda became a DO in 1980, Sauvignon was introduced in Rueda in the 1970′s.  Was Sauvignon a secondary grape at the time the DO was approved in 1980?  If so, then wouldn’t Sauvignon be an original authorized grape of the region even though it’s not native to Spain?  Same thing with Garnacha and Monastrell I would say, it’s not native to France, but has been authorized in the Rhone for a very long time so they are also international varieties, which show well outside their native land.  If Sauvignon was one of the original grapes of the DO Rueda at the time of it’s approval, it should have the ability to list Rueda as it’s DO. 

    • Oliver Styles

      That’s kind of what I was alluding to when I said that such grapes in such regions are slightly ‘removed’ from them. Pinot Noir in La Mancha, I think we can all agree, is pretty alien.

      There is, though, a time factor. I still think Rueda Sauvignon is relatively ‘new’ as opposed to Garnacha in France. In fact, most grapes in Europe were imported by the Romans so it’s merely a question of time (by the time I die, Viognier might be accepted by one and all as a great expression of Calatayud). I think what I’m getting at (see my response to Vserna below too) is that I don’t believe Sauvignon Blanc ‘works’ well enough in Rueda.

      We might disagree, but I’ll stick to that.

  • Ederglex

    I like spanish wine over french or italian, and when you love you need to love the mistakes too. Unfortunately spanish culture and way of life has pushed these international varieties in the vineyard, there are more winemakers who want to sell without content, with spanish climate it is a true disappointment they are trying to grow sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir, grapes who show their best in cooler regions, it would be acceptable if Spain did not have marvelous native grapes. But ask some people about spanish grapes and Spain has almost lost this battle to Portugal or Italy which have a more profound attach to their native grapes. It’s a shame and I don’t like people supporting these pseudowines: a Navarra Cabernet Sauvignon when it could be a garnacha top region, a Ribera del Duero with Merlot and Malbec come on it sucks, and Priorat accepting too much Syrah and Cabernet and it does not need them. there are few people who are still traditionalists and continue to make wonderful wines like Bodegas Eguren and Viñedos del Contino. I speak on behalf of the true spanish wine: there must be a prohibition of international varieties in Spain. SPAIN DOES NOT NEED THEM