It's time to re-think single origin wines

Transregional and transnational blends of terroir products like coffee can creating exciting new tastes. Robert Joseph asks why can't we try the same thing in wine.

Photo by Mike Kenneally on Unsplash
Photo by Mike Kenneally on Unsplash

Coffee. Tea. Honey. Chocolate. Olive oil

Where do they from?

I’ll tell you where mine come from.

This week, my coffee comes from Java. Last week’s was Sumatran., and the next pack might well be put together by the coffee shop. My tea is organic, free trade, and blended.

I have two jars of honey, one from the EU and the other from a local beekeeper.

Our Lindt Excellence 90% and 85% Cocoa chocolate bars were apparently made in Germany and France respectively, but neither wrapping reveals where the beans were grown.

The unfiltered extra virgin olive oil we use every day is a European blend but we also have a couple of bottles from named countries and regions.

What’s in your cupboards? Does everything have a clearly identified origin? Or do you have a pot of honey that’s a ‘blend of EU and non-EU honeys’, like the one they sell in my supermarket?

My guess is that if you were to look in most people’s cupboards, multi-national blends of these five items will outnumber origin-specific products – unless you happen to know a lot of very foodie folk.

The labels of the wines, however, will reveal a country and, most likely, a region. Because, well, why?

Because terroir matters of course.

But that’s what the coffee growers in Java and Sumatra would say. And the tea farmers in Darjeeling or Assam. My local apiarist is as obsessed by the flavours of his honey as a chocolatier might be about the unique qualities of cocoa beans from Madagascar and Venezuela.

Then, of course, there are plenty of Tuscan winemakers who’ll wax just as lyrical about the character of their estate-grown olive oil as their super-Tuscan red.

And they’re all correct.

In a parallel universe where time and money were no object, maybe everybody would respect these local flavours and reject multi-region and multi-country blends. At the moment, however, blends are the rule, not the exception.

Why should wine be different from these other agricultural products? Why shouldn’t the inexpensive red wine I serve along with the sausages and spicy barbecue ribs not be a blend from Chile and Argentina, or Spain, France and Italy? Would it not taste as good? Would the men and women who grow the grapes be worse off (given the $0.50/litre many are currently being paid for wine bearing their national flag)?

And why can’t anybody experiment with a super-premium wine from two or more different countries? While many of the priciest teas and coffees come from single estates in specific regions, coffee aficionados are very enthusiastic about Mocha Java – the blend of beans from Yemen (or an alternative, given the current state of that country) and Indonesia that has existed since the 16th century. One of the pricier teas on offer in Harrods Food Hall is the Wolseley Collection, a “perfect balance of China Black with Darjeeling and Formosa Oolong tea leaves”, while London’s other traditional purveyor of tea, Fortnum & Mason has a ‘Royal Blend’ of ‘Flowery Pekoe from Ceylon’ and ‘maltier Assam’ that was created in 1902 for King Edward Vll.

And then there’s whisky. Obviously, for the true fan, nothing beats a single malt. Or does it? Well, if price is any indication the retort to that might be luxury blends like Chivas Regal Royal Salute and Johnny Walker Blue Label. But at least these are 100% Scottish. No-one would dream of mixing whiskies from different countries. Would they?

Not unless they were bringing together Scottish malt whiskies from Longmorn in Moray and Glen Garioch in Aberdeenshire with Japanese malt from Hanyu in Saitama to produce the Glover 22 Year Old. Just 390 bottles were blended by Charles Maclean, one of the world’s most respected whisky critics, and they apparently all sold for £1,050 ($1,400) apiece. The Glover 14-year-old and 18-year- old blends were more affordable – at £150 ($195) for the 18-year-old – but sadly, they have sold out.

In the wine world, the only trans-national blends most people are likely to encounter are the inexpensive Produits de la Communauté Européenne efforts that are to be found in every French supermarket under brand names like la Villageoise and Vieux Papes.

These are bestsellers and help to explain the huge volumes of wine France imports in bulk from Italy and Spain every year.

The idea of making a wine equivalent of the Glover is an anathema to most members of the industry, but it has been done. The late Peter Sichel of Chateaux Palmer and d’Angludet managed to affront people on both sides of the Atlantic by marrying Cabernet from Napa with Bordeaux on one occasion in the late 1980s, while Jean-Charles Boisset served me a delicious Pinot Noir blend he’d made from his vineyards in Sonoma and the Côte de Nuits. He’s also just launched a French/American blend to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

The motivation for cheap commercial trans-national blends is easy to understand: consistency of style, quality, quantity and price. When frost or drought hits country A, you can switch to country B.

Historically, these concerns haven’t been relevant to producers of super premium wine. Sichel and Boisset were having fun. But, as climate change leads to much more variable vintages, the temptation to be able to blend across regions, may well become a lot stronger.

So, while I’m almost absolutely sure that you won’t find interestingly transgressive blended wines in anyone’s homes today, I’m betting that it won’t be that long before you do…

Robert Joseph

For full access...

Please log in or register now»               No subscription?  Try out our free 14 day trial»

Latest Articles