David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the article which ran on 2/18/2015:
There are seven noble grapes. Three whites: sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and riesling and four reds: pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. A noble grape is a grape variety that expresses it’s regionality in a specific characteristic fashion. For example, a cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley will taste different than a cabernet sauvignon from France’s Bordeaux region. Noble grapes are also the most recognizable international varieties. While you might recognize the Spanish wine called Rioja, you might not know that the grape is tempranillo and this grape isn’t widely planted outside Spain. Thus cabernet sauvignon is considered a noble grape variety due to its broad acceptance and ability to express the flavor of the place and tempranillo isn’t considered noble because it is grown only in a few specific locations and doesn’t perform particularity well when planted in anything other than the soil of it’s home region.
The idea of some grapes being noble and others not doesn’t sit well with some democratically minded wine aficionados. The criticism is that the idea of a noble variety is out-dated and that it favors French grape varieties. I teach the concept of the noble grapes in all of my wine classes and I think it is an extremely important and valuable tool for understanding wine. Here’s why:
By learning these seven grape varieties you’ll have a very strong foundation for learning the range of flavor profiles in most, if not all, styles of wine. Since the noble grapes span a broad selection of styles of wines and since they are planted in every wine producing region of the world, they offer the taster the opportunity to learn how a varietal tastes and as important, how it interacts with food. Pairing food and wine is a monumental task – it takes a keen understanding of specific flavors of the food and the flavors, acidity, dryness and tannin of the wine to make an educated pairing guess. How does the casual wine consumer summit the mountain of food and pairing options? You start with the basics by learning about the noble grapes. Once you have an understanding of these seven grapes you’ll be able make a good wine and food pairing based on experience rather than luck.
The noble grapes also express the taste of place. This is the French concept called terroir. They do this better than any of the other grape varieties. This is how a chardonnay from the Chablis region of Burgundy can have the aromas of lemon and apple while a similarly produced chardonnay from South Australia can smell like mango and pineapple. This is how a California pinot noir can have a big, robust, fruit filled mouth-feel while a Burgundian pinot noir can be light and airy with the velvety feel of suede and the flavor of ripe summer cherries. This penchant toward expressing the land is not unique to the noble grapes but they are the best at expressing it. This means that you have almost innumerable variables when selecting your wine because you aren’t just selecting a sauvignon blanc you need to also consider where that sauvignon blanc was produced. While the majority of the wine’s characteristics may be the same, the subtleties in flavor and aroma will vary. As any good cook will tell you it’s the spices, the care in preparation, and the technique that truly make the dish. All of these concepts also pertain to wine.
The final criticism of the noble grapes concept is that it favors French grape varieties over others. This is true, it does, but it’s not the fault of the French that their land was blessed with a host of grape varieties that make excellent wine. We should thank them for continuing a tradition of winemaking over the centuries and for developing a worldwide wine industry. Without France all we’d be left with is beer and hard liquor and neither pair as well with food as wine.