Back to basics: varietals

Each new year, I revisit some basics in wine education. This week's topic is well-known grape varietals — the bread and butter of the wine world.

In the past 10 years or so, we've seen a change in many of these classics because of warmer temperatures, updates in viticultural practices and consumers requesting a different spin on old classics.

Chardonnay. This varietal leads the pack in evolution in the world of white wine, having undergone a variety of changes — especially on the California scene. As a new retailer in Lafayette, Calif., in 1970, I remember the chardonnay from Napa Valley and Sonoma as being so over-oaked it was impossible to tell what the heck was in the glass.

I attended a chardonnay tasting in 1972 in San Francisco, where French and American winemakers were showcasing their wines on opposite sides of the room. It still remains the most illuminating tasting on the use of oak I have ever attended. It was clear to most (except for the most hard-headed winemakers) that oak should not be the driving force of wine, that perhaps the varietal should speak for itself and oak should compliment the grape, not the other way around.

Consumers led the charge for a different chardonnay at about this time. They wanted less or no new oak, and many left the world of chardonnay because of the extracted, buttery and oaky styles found at this time. Even today, white wine lovers who remember when chardonnay was a stick of wood simply will not pick up the grape again.

The best way to know about a specific chardonnay is to ask your server or retailer, as there is a dizzying array of choices out there.

Pinot gris. This white wine has taken off like a rocket. Sales of Oregon gris and Italian grigio have increased across the board. This refreshing white wine, which seemingly goes with just about any light fare, starts at about $10 and peaks in the just under $20 range.

When made well, pinot gris exhibits clean, thirst-quenching flavors as well as long, fresh flavors in the finish. Try to purchase gris from the cooler climes, as the natural acidity from cooler areas really sparks the finish. Pinot gris is the perfect wine with seafood and shellfish as well as fresh-water, delicate trout. These wines generally should be enjoyed within four years of vintage date.

Sauvignon blanc. Ten years ago, no one would have guessed it, but the New Zealanders are blasting a new road into the sauvignon blanc market. Known for their clean, flinty, fresh styles, New Zealand sauvignon blancs are really something to experience.

Traditionally, sauvignon blancs in the American market came from the Napa Valley, Washington state and France. With stunning examples of sauvignon blanc arriving from Marlborough, the game has changed. These guys account for a substantial share of sauvignon blanc sold worldwide. If you have not tried these wines and are a fan of dry, clean white wines, you are missing out. They're delicious with grilled seafood.

Pinot noir. Known for its spicy flavors, delicate balance and sometimes fat and unctuous weight, pinot noir is creating the most interest among red wine lovers in the United States. Very good cabernet and merlot have been produced for quite a while in this country, but pinot noir is generating quite the buzz, in no small part to the great 2008 vintage in Oregon. In selected areas of the West Coast, we are finding well-made pinot to be good to great in every aspect of wine sensory quality.

Having been retailing wine in Oregon for 32 years, I find the increase in quality of this fine red wine grape, especially from the Willamette Valley, to be amazing. The last of the wonderful 2008 vintage is going away, and I implore you to try at least one good release before it is gone.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at

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