Can One Grape Variety Be Better Than Another?
This statement is likely to irritate a few folks, but in my opinion, one can make an argument supporting this thinking. It also plays squarely into my pet peeve in the industry – lack of focus on evaluating structure, balance and texture in wine. So, which varietals capture these characteristics better than others? Let’s tackle red varietals… Balance is definitely most affected by the winemaker, so we will drop this from consideration. Structure and texture come primarily from the fruit, making it easy to focus the discussion on these two areas. Which varietals produce the most structured, textured wines in the world?
What is Structure?
Structure is the “backbone” of the wine. It is what gives the wine an impression of being complete, or without missing components. In red wine, the components of structure are: tannins, acidity, alcohol and phenolic development. The opposite of a structured wine is a “flabby” wine, or one missing these components.
What is Texture?
Texture is more nuanced. The mouth perceives texture in ways you would not expect. For example, higher alcohol wines can appear to be heavier bodied in the mouth, but intellectually that may be hard to accept. Texture is influenced by the same components as Structure, but instead of the amount, it is more about the character of these components. With Tannins, it is about the attack of the tannins in the mouth. Are they dusty, grainy, fine, soft, mouth-filling? With Acidity, it is a yes, or no proposition. Is there enough acidity to make the mouth water? With Alcohol, it is about adding body with just enough bite to affect Structure, but not too overpowering to throw off the balance. Phenolic development is the wild card. Some varietals can develop the type of phenolics, when properly extracted during winemaking, to leave a slight coating on the interior of the mouth that is quite pleasant.
Terroir and Its Affect
As usual, Terroir factors into everything when discussing wine. In this case, making the evaluation much more difficult. Cabernet Franc dominated wines from Bordeaux and Napa come close to being included on this list, but when produced in areas like Chinon, fall far short. Malbec dominated wines from Cahors could easily qualify, but from Mendoza not so much. Merlot from Bordeaux’s Right Bank would be a shoo-in, but from Central California… ugh! Why? Because these varietals are heavily dependent on optimum terroir to express themselves properly. Another way to explain it: these are fickle varieties that must be grown in the right location and nurtured properly to produce quality wine.
Which grape varietals consistently produce the most structured, complex and textured wines in the world?
Cabernet Sauvignon – The Grand Daddy of the Noble Grape family. Produces wines like this in virtually every location it is grown.
Carignan – The unsung “lost” Bordeaux varietal. Produces great reds.
Tannat – Holy Cow! The biggest structured red on the planet!
Anglianico – One of the oldest grape varieties in the world and the least appreciated.
Syrah – I have run into a few that have been flabby, but 95% have been solidly in this category.
Nebbiolo – The quintessential structured red variety, but only when grown in Barolo and Barbaresco. The most ageable of all the red varieties.
Corvina – Doesn’t apply… might be included as Amarone. Made from grapes that are dried first, before being made into wine.
Sangiovese – Inconsistent in the Chianti regions and only reaches its fullest potential in Brunello.
Touriga Nacional – This is the Grand Papa grape of Portugal and is rarely grown anywhere else. Which is the reason it did not make the list.
Tempranillo – THE Spanish red varietal produces huge wines in Spain, but falls far short, most everywhere else it is grown.
Petit Verdot – The ultimate blending grape. This would have been a good addition to the list, BUT when bottled on its own… is almost undrinkable. I am convinced it is impossible to make a balanced Petit Verdot.
I am sure folks will want to know why this, or that varietal is missing: for example Pinot Noir. Pinot makes the most beautiful, nuanced wines in the world, but definitely not the most structured. Any others that you do not see here are either, more obscure varieties that I have not tasted, or are varieties that are too dependent on location and winemaking style to produce structured, textured wine consistently.