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

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No-Guilt Wine Grapes: Thank You, Cesar Chavez!

He’s a modern-day hero now, with schools, bridges, libraries, parks and roads named after him. But back in the ’60s and ’70s, California’s agricultural oligarchy was hardly enamored of human rights activist César Chávez. That was especially true of grape growers, targets of the 5-year boycott that made Chávez famous.

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[Photo of Chavez with a sign encouraging farm workers to “Huelga” – “Strike” – courtesy of Jay Galvin, Flickr/Creative Commons]

Ironically, although he spent his adult years trying to revolutionize the farming establishment, Chávez started life as one of them. Born in Yuma, Arizona this day in 1927, he spent his early years on the 100-acres-plus farm owned by his grandfather, Césario Chávez. But the family lost their farm in the Great Depression and went to California to labor in the fields as migrant workers.

After a wartime stint in the U.S. Navy, Chávez returned to the fields. He spent his spare hours reading and became a devotee of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of social change through non-violence. His world was ready to erupt: migrant workers often went unpaid, got no medical care or schooling in the barrios, worked all day without bathroom breaks and endured other conditions difficult to imagine in today’s first-world lifestyle.

So in his mid-30s, Chávez began the slow process of organizing farm workers for better living and working conditions, and several years later his National Farm Workers Association joined with the AFL-CIO in their strike against vineyards in Delano, California.

Chávez became the national poster boy for underserved Americans – especially those in rural communities, and especially Latinos. Public pressure and support for the boycott was so strong that most growers caved, signing agreements to upgrade conditions for field workers. Chávez became the first man ever to organize a farm workers’ union that resulted in signed contracts, and shortly after the grape boycott ended in 1970, he went after lettuce growers. It didn’t impact the industry as much as the grape protest, but that mattered little; American consumers had awakened.

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[Photo of Chávez, right, with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. The woman to Kennedy’s right is Chavez’s wife, Helen. Courtesy of Korean Resource Center, Flickr/Creative Commons]

One feature of Chávez’s non-violent protest tactic was fasting. In 1968, to prevent violence during the grape strike, he went on a hunger strike for 25 days. His fast was broken at an outdoor Mass attended by 4,000 supporters, including Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Chávez conducted several more hunger strikes during his organizing career, and in the end it likely killed him. He died in his sleep in 1993 after fasting for several days – but while not all everything he accomplished was permanent, the most important changes – guaranteed pay for migrant workers, a 70 percent wage increase from 1964 to 1980, health care, schooling and a formal grievance policy – did endure. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom to Chávez’s wife, fellow activist Helen Chávez, and in 2008, Presidential candidate Barack Obama adopted Chávez’s mantra, “Si se puede”–“Yes, we can”–as his own campaign slogan.

And I still have my “Boycott Grapes” bumper sticker.

What should we pour, then, to honor César Chávez on his birthday? It has to be a California varietal, don’t you think? A nice Cab or Merlot is the obvious choice, but they do so well with Zinfandel, I think that’s what I’ll drink tonight. And if you feel like a splurge, try a Schramsberg bubbly. Finally, Chávez would approve.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Alto Adige = Italy’s northernmost wine region. Perched at the very top of the country, Alto Adige sits in the Italian Alps (known as the Dolomites) and borders Austria and Switzerland. When you visit, you’ll drink lively whites with plenty of minerality- Pinot Grigio, Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon (as they call Sauvignon Blanc) – but you’ll find BigSexyReds here, too.

Cheers!

Mary