Grape varieties don’t matter

The much-hyped comedy Sideways left me cold. I did leave the cinema, however, with the warm glow of the pedant for noticing that the grape varieties the Paul Giamatti character is most rude about, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, are the two that go into his beloved Cheval Blanc,  I remember thinking isn’t that just like Hollywood to make such a basic mistake. I now think it was a sly nod to the cognoscenti. Perhaps one of the film’s points is that grape varieties are not paramount, where a wine comes from, the skill with which the grapes are nurtured and the wine made is more important than the type of grape used.

The varieties that come in for the most flack are the German crosses, Huxelrebe, Bacchus, Muller-Thurgau etc. These grapes, normally crossings of Riesling with something that ripens earlier, were designed to have some of the flavour of their noble ancestor but be easier to grow consistently in Germany. They, especially Muller-Thurgau, are held responsible for the precipitous decline in German wines reputation since the War. So when at a recent tasting I was offered a glass of wine made from this variety I declined. The producer, La Vis from Trentino in Italy, insisted and watched with amusement as my face lit up: it was delicious. My notes say: ‘floral, v.fresh, spicy.’ It tasted like one of those madly fashionable Austrian wines and not at all ‘vaguely peachy with a flat, flaccid mid-palate, too often with a slight-suspicion of rot’ (the tasting note from the Oxford Companion to Wine.) It wasn’t Riesling but it wasn’t trying to be. I have the suspicion that those awful German wines owe more ludicrously high yields, bad quality fruit and huge quantities of sugar than any intrinsic varietal qualities. With those practices, the wines would have been awful no matter what grape variety they used.

Due to our damp cold climate, most English wines apart from the champagne-style sparkling wines are made from these Germanic crosses. I have always avoided them. Why have a Bacchus when you could have a Fiano was my reasoning. Well at the same Italian tasting I tried a dull dilute Fiano, a dreary Falanghina and hopeless Greco di Tufo (all Campanian grapes which can be excellent.) Perhaps it is time to try change my view. Wine critics have been praising wines such as the Chapel Down Bacchus for many years now. They have transcended their humble varietals. They are bought because of the reputation of the company rather, at the other end of the scale, as Cheval Blanc is.

La Vis Cru also do a lovely Gewurztraminer and a Pinot Grigio.  They are distributed by United Wineries.

Chapel Down Bacchus widely available.

Cheval Blanc widely available for those who can afford it. Petite Cheval, the second wine, offers some of the magic for a more reasonable price. Try Berry Bros & Rudd.

About Henry

Henry Jeffreys was born in London in 1977. After graduating from the University of Leeds, where he studied English and Classical Literature, he spent so much time in Oddbins that they offered him a job. He worked in the wine trade for two years and then moved into publishing. At the same time he worked as a freelance journalist, book reviewer, founder member of the London Review of Breakfasts website and contributor to the Breakfast Bible (Bloomsbury 2013). In 2010 he started a blog about wine called ‘Henry’s World of Booze’ which became one of the most popular wine blogs in Britain. Following its success he was made wine columnist for The Lady by Rachel Johnson and in 2014 was shortlisted for Drinks Writer of the Year at the Fortnum & Mason awards for his work in the Spectator. In 2015 he wrote a weekly column for the Guardian called ‘Empire of Drinks’ looking at history and alcohol. He is now a regular contributor to the Spectator, the Guardian, the Economist, the Financial Times, the Oldie and Food & Wine magazine on drink and other matters. He lives in Blackheath, south London with his wife and daughter. Empire of Booze is his first book.
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