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On Wine

Dan Berger On Wine: Import confusion

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Sept. 25, 2021 series
  • Updated

I’ve been writing about wine for 45 years and every time I think I’ve got a handle on it…

I’ve met people who think of themselves as wine experts. At least, they act that way. They know things like the soils of Napa Valley, can explain the meaning of terroir, and speak expressively of the differences between French and American oak barrels.

Yet they have no idea what the term erzeugerabfüllung means.

Wine “experts” come in all shapes and sizes, from generalists to specialists. What constitutes expert knowledge in one area of wine may have no meaning in other areas. This is one aspect of wine that makes it such a complex and difficult subject to master.

Indeed, Master of Wine (MW) is a term that takes decades of study to acquire. The title may be used only by those who have passed a rigid exam originally devised to certify expertise in a broad range of wine topics — and to be used by those primarily engaged in the selling of wine.

It was a British construct aimed at validating wine merchants. Today a list of MWs now includes people from around the globe, some of whom do not sell wine at all.

The MW title was established when the phrase “wine merchant” carried more significance than it does now. Now “wine merchant” is used loosely; I’ve seen it applied to 20-year-olds whose greatest wine trait is that they know how to spit.

Most MWs are proficient in explaining the nuances that make wine such a fascinating subject — once you get into the weeds. Which most MWs have. This includes knowledge of wine from places most people didn’t even know were places. Or made from grapes whose names sound like answers to a med school exam.

But times have changed and the letters “MW” after a person’s name isn’t as revered today as it was 40 or 50 years ago. Today there is so much more to know — and the MW exam doesn’t last for six weeks, though these days it could.

(Test question: “How many crus are there in Beaujolais? Name them all.”)

Decades ago, MWs had to know a lot about maybe eight to ten grape varieties and inelastic wine regulations in a small handful of regions. Obscure grapes only recently came of age. And not just Grüner Veltliner, Marsanne, Touriga Franca, and Tannat. That’s the easy stuff.

In recent years, as the number of eclectic wine drinkers who love diversity has grown, they aren’t fearful of really rare varieties. As a result, we’ve heard of wines made from Noiret, Brianna, Bobal, Sauvignon Gris, Chardonnel, Favorita, Saperavi, Rotgipfler, and Madeline Angevine. And dozens more. And the number of wine regions has exploded.

As more different wines become available, and as younger consumers’ interests are piqued, the number of people who adore the obscure is growing. It’s harder to be a generalist in wine today — unless you spend all your waking hours delving into topics that call for two PhDs — one in viticulture, another in international wine laws.

I know a man who markets German Rieslings. He is truly knowledgeable about them and he’d tell you that erzeugerabfüllung is Germany’s rough equivalent to “produced and bottled by.” But he probably couldn’t tell you the first thing about Bonarda, Fiano and Pecorino.

No, it’s not a law firm in Rome. They’re grape varieties that don’t grow in Germany — or didn’t the last I checked.

Likewise, an Australian wine expert might have a difficult (impossible?) time with terms like Gran Selezione, UGA, or Vigliagli.

The last three terms might even stump an Italian wine specialist (and probably most Masters of Wine!) since they relate directly to significant changes in the official rules governing the production of Chianti Classico.

The new regs were codified less than three months ago! The intent of the changes to Italian wine law was to provide consumers with information that helps them to make more informed buying decisions.

(The cynical sector of my brain thinks the new regs also may have been motivated partly by the potential for higher prices.)

If you’re a lover of Chianti (I am), the new category Gran Selezione (grand selection), which was first approved in 2014, is excellent. It allows wineries to make Chiantis greater in quality than the former top-of-the-line wines called Riserva.

Gran Selezione was an obvious category for top producers, even though it called for an extra six months of aging at the winery. The law says such wines must come from vineyards completely controlled by the producer.

As such, they’re sort-of “estate-bottled” wines and in theory are more authentic, than Riservas. So even though more than 150 producers in the Classico region now make a Gran Selezione, production is limited to vineyards that the wineries own or control.

UGA stands for “unita geografiche aggiuntive.” It is an “additional zone” that producers may use on their labels to denote a subdistrict that Chianti purists can use to identify subtle regional variances from one area of the Chianti zone to another.

It has long been said that Chiantis from one of the nine distinct Chianti Classico communes (say Radda) differ from those of other UGAs (such as Castellina).

And as for Vigliagli, it’s the new name for an area of the UGA Castelnuovo Berardenga, which is being divided in half. Vigliagli was created from the former district’s western region.

Generalist wine experts might be unable to tell you much about the new Chianti rules. They would best be explained by Italian wine specialists who have read of and witnessed the byzantine manner in which Chianti regulations have changed since 1874, 13 years after Italy became a unified country.

And many of the pretzel-like changes in Chianti laws have been so radical that even Italian wine experts do not know some of the details.

For instance: Beginning about 1990, many Chianti producers who opposed the mandatory use of white wine grapes in Chianti (which had been the law since the mid-1800s!) rose up to oppose that tradition, arguing that using white grapes in a red wine left the wines with less intensity and thus less likely to age.

One result was a law change that reduced white grape use and at the same time allowed so-called international varieties (like Cabernet and Merlot) to be blended into Chianti.

Purists howled. Though the use of Cabernet made for more “interesting” red wines, in some cases, purists said the move altered how some traditional wines smelled and tasted.

The “new Chianti,” they said, wasn’t Chianti at all. It was a three-legged chicken.

Now let’s move to the new Gran Selezione wines: Under the new law, Cabernet may not be used at all in them! (Back to tradition! Sangiovese is at the heart of them.) Cabernet Sauvignon is still permitted in Riservas.

Got all that? Most generalist wine experts will not care about any of this vino esoterica, but Italian wine nuts will simply add a page to their trivia files.

Wine of the Week

2017 Strada al Sasso, Chianti Classico, Gran Selezione ($50/see below) — Authenticity returns in this classic rendition of a 1970s-style Tuscan red with a balanced aroma of red fruit, dried tomato, trace of licorice and Turkish tobacco.

The gorgeous dry/tart mid-palate makes it ideal for pairing with grilled chicken, tomato-sauced seafood, and lots of other medium-weight foods.

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Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, Calif., where he publishes "Vintage Experiences," a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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