Identifying Varietal Character
“Paul, you refer to varietal character in your descriptions of the wines you feature. I am having difficulty identifying what you are talking about.. I can follow the other parts of your description usually. What is varietal character, and how can I identify it?”
– S.O.; San Diego
Varietal character is the organoleptic “character” contributed to the wine by the specific “variety” of grape used to make a particular wine. It is usually identifiable, if the wine is not a blend.
How can you identify it? Practice, practice, practice! Think of the fun you will have!
Seriously, let me go back to the first part of my answer. Organoleptic refers to the evaluation of a wine by using the senses of sight, smell, taste and feel as opposed to an evaluation by chemical analysis. It is the specific color, aroma and bouquet, taste, and feel of a wine made from a single variety of grape. Surely by now, you have detected differences between different wines made from different grapes. Some of these differences are constant within a specific variety of grape. Cabernet Sauvignon has its own varietal character, so does Chardonnay, so does Pinot Noir, and so does Gewurztraminer. Think of the significant differences in smell and taste of the varieties of apples, or better still, melons. Now, some varieties of grapes have a more dominant character than others, and some have very weak and harder to identify characteristics.
Naturally, if the wine is a blend of more than one grape variety, we have a problem. It is bad enough trying to recognize a variety when it is 100% from that grape. A blend starts becoming a melange of characteristics that make for good wine, but inconsequential as far as the exercise of identifying varietals.
If you want to learn how to identify these varietal characters I write about at times, open anywhere from 4 to 12 bottles of the same variety of wine, from different wineries, and compare them. Pretty soon down the line, you will start picking up a common denominator of smell, taste, and color nuances and even feel. Ignore the acridity, the sugar, the alcohol contributions to the taste, plus any mistakes you find in the wines. Just concentrate on the similarities. Keep doing this a few times, and the bell will ring!
Don’t get discouraged. It will happen. Be sure that you use wines that are made 100% from the varietal you are studying. California wines will be good examples for this exercise, because we tend to cherish varietally pure wines!
Trying to verbalize these “varietal characteristics” is the difference between wine writers! You will find some consensus of adjectives sometimes and they are all in the books. They are different enough that they confuse the beginner. The key is your interpretation of the commonality, and your mental notes of it. The latter is very important. Memory is the best tool of a wine taster.
The story of blended wines is another chapter. There are characteristics and grouping by growing regions. One does develop a familiarity of these in a similar way.
Better yet, forget it all and enjoy!
- Import Selection: Chateau Chariot, 1988. Corbieres
- Domestic Selection: Chardonnay, 1989. White Oak
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- Import Selection: Chateau Larroque, 1989. Bordeaux
- Domestic Selection: Charbono, 1979. Inglenook-Napa Valley
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- Import Selection: Cabernet Sauvignon, 1988. Los Vascos
- Domestic Selection: Muscat Canelli, 1990. Santino Winery