Wine Ink: The name of the game when the grape is the same
“I don’t like pinot grigio,” my friend said with formidable defiance when I gifted her with a bottle of pinot gris from New Zealand recently.
“It’s not the same,” I replied, hoping to get her to at least try the wine.
“It’s a different grape,” I said, inaccurately, thinking in my mind that the versions of Italian pinot grigio with their bright acidity and drier style and this richer, more minerally wine from Marlborough were two different wines indeed.
Ah, but not half a minute went by before I was called on my mistake. “Yes,” an eavsedropper quickly pointed out, “pinot gris and pinot grigio are in fact the same grape.” They just wear different clothing. Not only was my mistake laid bare, but also the recipient of my gift was promptly assured that she would not like this wine. This, of course, will be the last time I try to do a good deed and expose others to tasty wines while exposing my own lack of clarity on a grape.
Yes, pinot grigio, the increasingly popular summer wine that hails from the northeastern part of Italy in the Lombardi, Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia regions, matches the DNA of pinot gris. Pinot gris is prized in the Alsace region of eastern France for its lush and smooth mouth feel and the slightly sweet, slightly spicy flavor components that it delivers. Personally, I prefer the more complex flavors associated with the pinot gris wines. And yes, they can all taste quite different depending upon the maker, the style and, of course, their source.
But, as is often the case, a wine conundrum leads to other aspects of thinking about the greater wine world. So my attention this week has turned to grapes that are called by different names in different places.
You likely know the most obvious. Shiraz. Yes, it is the same grape as syrah. But in Australia and France, where the respective names are used to describe the grape that likely has its origins in a third place, Persia (now known as Iran), the wines produced from the grape can be very different.
If you have tasted both syrah and shiraz you know how different they can taste. In the hands of the Aussies, the grape can be big, brawny, fruity and bold as the Barossa Valley sun and soil. Iterations from France, especially from the rocks of the Rhône, can reflect both the cooler climate and the precise sensibilities of their winemakers. The wines can be a bit more reserved and, though the grape is by nature robust, elegant on the palate. Either way the wines produced from syrah/shiraz can be delicious, just different.
California zinfandel and the primitivo grape found in Southern Italy are another example of grapes with a different name, but a shared genetic history. Actually, the origin of both grapes is Croatia where, if it can actually be found, is called “crljenak kaštelanski.” Yes, zinfandel is much easier to say.
There are those who swear that planted side by side, the two grapes will produce completely different-sized clusters and sizes of grapes. But in 2001, the great Dr. Carole Meredith, a former geneticist at the University of California at Davis, identified the Croatian, Californian and the Italian grape as all having the same DNA. I wonder if you sent in grapes from all three, grown in their homelands, to 23 and Me, the new DNA-testing firm for humans, the same match could be found. Ah, progress.
There are other examples of grapes that are known in one place as one thing, and then are called a completely different thing elsewhere. One man’s mourvèdre, says a Frenchman, is a Spaniard’s monastrell. Specifically, a Spaniard from the hotter-than-Hades region of Jumilla in the south of Spain. If you were to travel to Catalonia, east and north of Jumilla, while still in Spain, plantings of the grape would be under the moniker of mataró. And yet the grape is the same. It is just that various regions, all of them suited to the grape, have colloquial uses that identify the grape as theirs.
The point is, there are numerous wines and grapes out there. Trying them is the only way to find out if you actually like any one better than another. There are even variations of grapes that provide unique taste experiences based on the actual origin of the grape that supercede the varietal.
You never know until you try.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.