I’m creeping up towards my goal of 100 varietal wines from 100 different varieties, and it’s worth a post on its own, largely because I never really explained it in the first place. So to start, what is this Wine Century that I keep going on about?
Wine is made from grapes, and while the vast majority of quality wine is made from one species called Vitis vinifera, within that species there are varieties such as Syrah and Chardonnay that have their own unique properties. It’s a bit like breeds of dogs – most domesticated dogs are Canis lupus familiaris but within that species (sub-species to be more accurate) we have Labrador Retrievers, Irish Setters and hundreds of other breeds. So roughly speaking, varieties are to grapes as breeds are to dogs.
If you drink wine, you quickly become familiar with the names of the more popular varieties, particularly if you drink New World wine where the grapes are commonly found prominently displayed on the front label. If you study wine, you get to know even more varieties as you learn about increasingly obscure regions and grapes.
In 2005, Deborah and Steve De Long came up with an idea to promote lesser known grape varieties, and what resulted is The Wine Century Club. You can apply for membership by listing 100 grapes you’ve tasted, along with the wines in which they were found. There are subsequent levels of membership if you taste 200, 300, and so on. It’s free, and is essentially bragging rights for wine geeks. The De Longs are also responsible for the Wine Grape Varietal Table which I love, as well as some excellent maps.
So I’m attempting to join that club and I am finding it an interesting challenge. On the one hand, it should be easy, given that Wine Grapes profiles 1,368 different grapes being used in commercial wine production. In Australia alone, Vinodiversity lists over 100, so in theory I wouldn’t even have to leave the country. Easy, right?
First off, there are a small number of varieties that dominate wine production. If I head to my local wine merchant here in Adelaide, there’s no end of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir, but if I want a bottle of Carignan, I have to dig substantially deeper. Second, it’s not always clear which grapes are in a wine. Most European wines don’t list grape varieties on the label, requiring some online research (or the type of expert knowledge you get while studying for the WSET Diploma). Finally, most grapes are known by more than one name, so you can’t list both Frontignac and Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains because they’re the same grape. Still, if you drink enough wine and keep track, it shouldn’t be too difficult to eventually hit a century, right?
If you just want to tick boxes, sure. Last year I enjoyed a Prosecco which I had assumed was made exclusively of that grape. It turns out it also contained small amounts of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Bianchetta, Perera and Verdiso, which means in one bottle I picked up six grapes. Between that bottle, a classic red Bordeaux blend, and a bottle of red Châteauneuf-du-Pape which can contain up to 18 grapes, I could be up to 30 grapes tasted in three bottles. While only a handful are commonly used, scores of grapes are permitted in Port. There’s even a wine from Mario Giribaldi called Cento Uve which contains over 150 different grapes, and so in theory you could do a century and a half with a single sip (were it not explicitly forbidden).
However, this site is about wine education, primarily my self education as I document my drinking. In this context, listing a grape as part of a century should mean that I’ve tasted it, I’ve researched it, and that I know more about it than I did before I encountered it. However, I’m not comfortable describing how a grape tastes if I’ve only had it in a blend. Despite it having been a component of the Prosecco from last year, I couldn’t give you a tasting note for Verdiso, or really tell you anything about it. So for my first Wine Century, I am only going to list varietal wines. That makes it more difficult, but not impossible. Does that make it better than doing a normal Wine Century? No, just different, and if I go for 200 I’ll certainly start to count grapes tasted in blends. For now though, there are two main complications with this extra level of challenge.
First, wines which one might think are varietal can actually be blends. Labelling laws vary widely across the world, but in many places even when a variety is displayed prominently, it is permitted that some percentage of the wine may be made from other grapes. I’ve encountered that several times, including a “Gamay” which actually contained some Pinot Noir and a “Carignan” which contained Carmenère and Malbec. They weren’t labelled that way to mislead, and the websites for the producers had full details, but if you’re looking to stick to varietal wines, it can be frustrating.
Second, there are some grape varieties which, while common in blends, are less frequently found as varietal wines. Pinot Meunier is a classic example, in that it’s very often found in Champagne, but typically alongside Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir. Also, since it’s not considered as noble as those two grapes, if a Champagne producer made a varietal Pinot Meunier, they might be hesitant to draw attention to that fact..
So that’s what I’m trying to do now – a Century of Wines, all varietal. I haven’t quite hit 80, and I have every confidence I’ll finish 100 before the year is half through. I had been planning on a second part to this post regarding the practicalities of tracking 100 grapes, but really it’s down to keeping good records as to what you’ve been drinking, researching the wine in question to verify which grapes are in it, and being adventurous as to what wines you drink. You may find you have to go out of your way once you get past 50 or 60 varieties, but making use of things like the Wine Grapes Varietal Table and Vinodiversity are great for finding less common grapes. Finally, forming a tasting group with other people interested in doing the same thing can make it not only easier, but more sociable and entertaining.