We’re happy to go along with regional denominations that span thousands of kilometres, but the wine trade gets jumpy when boundaries are blurred with wines that come from more than one place of origin. Is that fair? David Williams ponders the point
It’s about 150 miles, or some two-and-a-half hours by car, from Vienne south of Lyon to the Camargue in Provence. In California, a road trip south from Vallejo to Lompoc takes the best part of five hours and covers 300 miles, while the 1,200 miles from Ceduna in South Australia to the intersection of the Tropic of Capricorn with Australia’s eastern coast is a transcontinental car journey of some 28 hours …
I’ll stop there. Much as I love these sorts of facts and figures and could go on (and on), I do realise this column has begun like the start of one of the more convoluted questions in a GCSE maths exam.
My point is actually quite straightforward: some of the wine world’s ACs, GIs and AVAs (Côte du Rhône, California’s Central Coast and South East Australia in case you hadn’t guessed) are really quite big. Too big, you might say, for them to mean very much at all.
In terms of topography, soil and climate, the vast Central Coast and still-vaster South East Australia contain multitudes. But even the relatively short trip from Côte-Rôtie to Châteauneuf-du-Pape takes you from a Continental to a Mediterranean climate, from strictly limited Syrah and Viognier to a seething varietal melting pot, and from granite and schist to galet pebbles: a journey between two completely different winemaking worlds, in other words.
Members of the wine trade, and many of its consumers, might well these days all subscribe to the idea that a wine increases in fineness in inverse proportion to the size of the vineyard from which it is sourced: the quality pyramid that goes from country to region to village to vineyard to plot.
At the same time, we don’t tend to think there’s anything strange or untoward about the bigger regional appellations. We are happy to talk in general terms about their style; we are even prepared to welcome the best cross-regional blends – to the top table – from Grange to most of the Grandes Marques and much of Rioja.
A weird double-standard is at play when the wine industry’s imaginary boundaries come up against the imaginary boundaries of geo-politics
And yet, something funny happens when winemakers make something that doesn’t fit into the rigid geographic boxes that wine law – both written and unwritten – allocates for them. A weird double-standard is at play when the wine industry’s imaginary boundaries come up against the imaginary boundaries of geo-politics.
I’m thinking, here, of wines that are blends of two different regions, countries, or continents: they are never taken seriously. They are treated as gimmicks, as cynical solutions to sourcing problems, as homogenising challenges to the very idea of wine as a region-specific product.
This, certainly, seemed to characterise much of the response to a new multi-national wine brand, The Borderless European Wine by Oenope. The work of three friends based in Italy and France, the project, which aims to make wines blended from across the continent as an act of “solidarity”, picked up a €30,000 grant from the European Cultural Foundation in 2020. And, after apparently encountering some difficulties in finding producer partners prepared to mix the fruit of their terroir with wines from foreign soils, the first releases arrived earlier this year: a French-Italian-Spanish red blend and a French-Italian white.
You don’t have to be pro-Brexit to find the marketing a little de trop in its pro-European sentimentality. “The Borderless European Wine by Oenope Is first of all a solidarity project in front of globalisation, climate changes and health crisis,” the project’s website proclaims. “It is about creating a link between European winegrowers, to promote their know-how, their terroirs and their cultures echoing the motto of the European Union: ‘United in Diversity’.”
All the same, I’m unwilling to denounce the wines (which I’ve yet to taste) out of hand. I may, like every other wine lover I know, need to overcome a certain amount of prejudice whenever I encounter multi-national or multi-regional blends. But the fact is I’ve had some very good examples of both over the years.
The 50-50 blends of Château La Lagune and Jaboulet Hermitage made by French winemaker Caroline Frey, for example, are a fascinating high-end return to the once-common practice of beefing up claret with a dose of Rhône. Californian iconoclast Randall Grahm’s Pacific Rim Riesling was for years a blend of wines from California, Washington, Oregon and Germany, and all the more interesting for it. And Alto-Adige producer Alois Lageder makes a really rather lovely “pan-Alpine” blend, Terra Alpina, of Pinot Grigio, Macabeu, Xarel.lo, Moscato Giallo and Pinot Bianco using fruit from Pyrenean Spain, Hungary and the Lageder family’s home vineyards. These may not qualify as wines of place. But then neither, if we’re honest, do most wines.
Indeed, what we usually get are wines of places – and how we feel about them has more to do with arbitrary geographical distinctions and borders than we might like to think.