Wine, Any Way You Spell It

Today we’re wrapping up Palindrome Week, a 10-day string of dates that read the same forwards and backwards: 9-10-19, 9-11-19, 9-12-19…you get the picture.

Although I couldn’t find any wine grapes whose names are palindromes, the quirky dates got me wondering: how did wine grapes get their names, anyway? Was there once a Frenchie named “Monsieur Sauvignon”? Or an Australian cat named Sherlock Shiraz?

Coronation grapes

[“Coronation Grapes” by Amber Fox, courtesy of Flickr]

The origins of grape names, it turns out, are logical for the most part, though some are more interesting than others. I found the stories behind eight common wine grapes:

  1. Chardonnay actually is a small village in the Mâconnais region of southern Burgundy, a part of France where Chardonnay grapes thrive. (If you weren’t aware, Chardonnay wine from that part of the world is sometimes referred to as “White Burgundy.”) The word means “place of thistles.”
  2. Gewürztraminer translates to “spiced Traminer,” a mutation of the Traminer grape from Tyrol, or northern Italy. We know it as an almost-perfumey star wine of Alsace.
  3. Malbec is mostly known as a red wine grape from the Mendoza region of Argentina, but it was once known as Auxerrois from the Cahors region of France. There, it’s known as Côt, Cor, Cos, or Cau, obviously derivatives of Cahors. It may be called Malbec because it was planted in Bordeaux in the 1780s by a Monsieur Malbeck.
  4. Merlot‘s history is pretty straightforward: the name of the dark, rich grape came from “merle,” the French word for Blackbird.
  5. Pinot Noir means “pine” and “black,” relating to the dark, pine cone-shaped clusters of Pinot Noir grapes on the vine. Pinot lovers refer to Burgundy as the “spiritual home” of Pinot Noir, and when you see a bottle on a wine store shelf that’s simply labeled “Bourgogne” or Burgundy, it’s Pinot Noir.
  6. Riesling references date back to 1477, when some writings in Alsace called it “Rissling.” There’s also a small vineyard and stream in Austria called Ritzling, and some claim that’s the origin of the name. A third possibility: the origin may be traced to durchriesein, a word with many spellings and meanings, including  “inability to flower in cool temperatures.”
  7. Sauvignon boasts a wild history, so it’s appropriate that its name derives from the French word “sauvage,” which translates to “wild.” Cabernet Sauvignon is an accidental cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
  8. Shiraz might be known as the signature grape of Australia, but its ancestry spans three continents: the name refers to the wine-producing city of Shiraz in Iran, and the grape originated in southeast France.

Enjoy what’s left of Palindrome Week, because the wacky pattern won’t happen again until 2021–on 12-1-21, to be precise. The 10-day string of palindrome dates happens every century, always in the second decade. And you might want to pour a special glass this evening, Thursday, September 19 at 19 minutes and 19 seconds past 9, when it will be 9-19-19, 9:19:19.

That factoid has nothing to do with wine history, but it’s an excuse to celebrate anyway, just a little.

Wine Lingo: Wine thief = no, it doesn’t mean your cousin Lizzie who “borrows” one of your best bottles and never replaces it. If you haven’t seen a wine thief in person, you’ve seen photos: it’s the long glass or metal tube used by winemakers to draw samples from wine barrels.

Peterson Syrah med

Vino ‘View: 2011 Peterson Syrah, Gravity Flow Block, Dry Creek Valley (13.8 percent alcohol, $48) Get out your decanter, because this full-bodied Sonoma red will need to breathe for an hour or so. It’s not a cheap bottle, so you’ll want to drink it at its best. The aroma is intense, with smoke and black fruit wafting up. After decanting, the wine finds a good balance, with smoke and oak remaining on the palate through the long finish. Dry leaves sneak in–have you tried CBD oil? I detected a bit of the same mushroomy, earthy taste. Not that the fruit is lost; I tasted plum, blackberry and maybe avocado. Drink it now; this wine won’t benefit from any more aging.

[The Peterson Syrah was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

Viognier, the “White Wine for Hedonists”

The cherry blossoms are about to pop in northern Virginia, and I’m looking at the first green grass I’ve seen in six months. We’re sipping Viognier, the state’s signature grape—crisp, fruity and the perfect varietal for welcoming spring—but this bottle is from the other side of the country: Maryhill Winery in Goldendale, Washington.

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I visited Maryhill, perched above the Columbia River near Mt. Hood, last October after the Wine Media Conference in Walla Walla. At about 8,000 cases of Viognier a year, Maryhill is the state’s biggest producer, though the American Northwest is a latecomer to Viognier-growing.

Viognier—a close DNA match to Syrah, by the way—may have originated in Croatia. One story has it imported into southern France as early as 281 AD: we know it grew in Condrieu during the Roman Empire. But it’s a notoriously difficult grape to grow because it’s more prone to disease than most varieties, and by the 1960s it was nearly extinct—only about 35 acres remained across the globe.

But as wine’s popularity grew, so did wine lovers’ awareness of this luscious white grape. Growers planted vines in California and Eden Valley (Australia) in the ’70s; now it’s found in New Zealand, Israel, North and South America, and the Cape Winelands of South Africa–for starters. In spite of its susceptibility to disease and unpredictable yields, Viognier also is drought-resistant, so it can thrive in warm, dry climates.

Viognier is a crisp, fruity wine, with aromas of peach, honeysuckle and tangerine. On top of the stone fruit layer you might detect a steely quality, along with some herbal notes–pine, chamomile, perhaps thyme. This festival of aromas is why wine authority Jancis Robinson calls Viognier, “the hedonist’s white grape variety,” but the perfume party doesn’t happen by accident. In order for the nose to fully develop, Viognier must hang on the vine longer than most grapes, sometimes rendering it “too rich to ferment to dryness.”

I think Viognier makes a delicious varietal, but increasingly I’m seeing it in blends, often with Grenache Blanc. Italian winemakers sometimes blend it with Chardonnay, especially, as Jancis Robinson notes, if it needs the Chardonnay’s added acidity. A few  creative winemakers, especially in California and Australia, have even started mixing it with reds, especially its close cousin Syrah, for a deeper texture and brighter color. And if you’re a person who likes a little oaky taste in your whites, look for Viognier that’s been aged in oak; it will give you that creamy mouthfeel you get in oaked Chardonnay.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  pH = a measure of a wine’s acidity, indicated by the amount of hydrogen in it.

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Vino ‘View:  Maryhill 2017 Viognier (14.5 % alcohol; $19) delivers superb balance in spite of that high (for a white) alcohol content, thanks to a hot summer and late harvest that give the wine a slightly tingly acidity. The grapes were sourced from four vineyards in the Columbia Valley AVA, picked in the cool morning hours to keep those peachy-bright aromas. The wine was partially fermented with French oak staves, but it’s so lively and fruity, I wouldn’t call it an “oaky” wine at all. Don’t drink it straight out of the refrigerator; take it out half an hour before you serve it so you can experience its richness. I drank mine with a spicy Thai curry, a perfect pairing for the grape’s natural sweetness.

[The Maryhill Viognier was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary