01438 741177         thewinesociety.com

Varietal content

I would like to hear some opinions on the following:
Just drank a few glasses of Simonsig Brut, lovely, no complaints, a bargain. But the blend is Chardonnay 55%, Pinot Noir 43% and Pinot Meunier 2%. My question is ‘What is the point of the 2% PM’? I see this so much, especially in Bordeaux wines. Can 1 or 2 percent or a particular grape make any difference in a wine?

2 Likes

I would say not, though doubtless some would disagree.

I suspect the point is that they just happen to own some Meunier vineyards and don’t want to throw the grapes away. Or perhaps even there are some Meunier vines coplanted in Pinot Noir vineyards and they are picked and fermented together.

2 Likes

I wonder too. But I will say that, and maybe it’s just suggestible, low single-figure percentage additions sometimes do seem to add a facet or nuance; I’m thinking, for example, when petit verdot appears in such proportions in a Bordeaux blend. I like Ch Angludet for that reason, but they often add more than 10%…

But I’m sure Steve is right too; in that additions of such a low percentage, but of a variety very similar to the other(s), may be a needs must commercial decision to use what fruit they have at their disposal - but dress it up in the flowery language on the back label.

Some might argue that the sum of the parts, ie the wine in front of you, is the only entity needing contemplation and that the assemblage is irrelevant; the maker wanting the product to be the thing; to express his/her philosophy and to reflect the terroir and that vintage’s growing conditions. I’m seeing this more and more on my travels where the question about what varieties are in this blend is not really treated with much interest ! A fine example would be Gemischter Satz where it’s solely about which vineyard the wine comes from.

On the other hand, take for example my (previously) favourite go-to white house wine when I’m in the Pyrenees. Made by Domaine de Maouries, just north of the Madiran their entry level €5 white used to be delicious but a couple of years ago suddenly wasn’t any more. Turned out they’d stopped adding the small proportion of Courbu to the mix which imo had made all the difference.

5 Likes

You could experiment by having a friend pour three glasses of a wine, and then have then add 2% of an additional/different variety into one of them. How reliably can you identify the adulturated one? And if you can, would you describe the difference as big enough to make a significant difference?

It could depend on the varieties of course. A little Gewurz in Pinot Blanc might be detectable. But Meunier in Pinot Noir? The fleshy bit of Meunier (i.e. the bit used in Champagne) is genetically a closely related mutation of Pinot Noir!

3 Likes

Thanks Steve, that is a great idea. I think I might try something obvious like adding 2% Nebbiolo to Gamay.

1 Like

One thing to consider is that those 2% varieties may not be that similar to those grapes in the forms you would usually encounter them in at higher proportions. For example, if the 2% in the blend is ultra-tannic, or ultra-sweet, they may have a noticeable difference in the final blend that you wouldn’t experience in 2% of the same varietal as produced for drinking alone.

2 Likes

Also, occasionally different varieties are co-fermented - not blended after fermentation. That can lead to different results.

One example is the use of a few percent of Viognier grapes, which are co-fermented with Syrah in the Northern Rhône. The Viognier is supposed to primarily aid colour-extraction from the Syrah skins. Though having said that, elsewhere in the world a little Viognier is blended in with the Syrah after fermentation, and is supposed to improve the flavour.

And I also suspect the practice in the Northern Rhône started because they happened to have some Viognier “hanging around”. I doubt very much that the vignerons conducted a series of tests that concluded that Viognier was the best grape for colour-extraction, and then began planting it.

1 Like

That I simply didn’t know ! I thought it was to give some sort of floral lift to the syrah. I must say I’ve never been struck that Cote-Rotie as being darker than say a CdR or Crozes…on the contrary they seem to be medium bodied on the whole. Maybe it’s cos I can only afford the cheaper ones…

Does 2% make a difference?

Do you cook? (If not ask someone who does.)

Do you add a sprinkle of herbs or a grind of pepper to a dish?

Do diners notice them in the final dish?

In the case of Simonsig - there’s very little PM planted in the Cape and I think they were the first. They are trying to use the Champagne grapes and PM is a major grape in Champagne. (It was the most planted variety when I first visited the region but it was never mentioned then - since it was found that it is a mutation of the ‘noble’ PN houses now admit to it’s inclusion.)

Simonsig was the first in the Cape to make a traditional method sparkling wine, and it was made primarily from Chenin and they’ve planted and moved to the three Champagne grapes since then.

6 Likes

There was so little Viognier planted in France that Jancis Robinson noted in her first book on grapes Viognier was not even included in the official French government survey of wine grapes in the late 70’s.

The Californian ‘Rhone Rangers’ wanted to make a Rhone style wine, and they reasoned that 100% Syrah would make it. But it didn’t. They went to visit winemakers in the Rhone and found them picking a few white Viognier grapes along with the black Syrah and fermenting them together. The Californians thought this was crazy; add white grapes to black surely makes for a paler weaker red wine.

They asked the winemakers why they did it, and were told that they did so because their fathers had done so, and when the fathers were quizzed they said their fathers had done so.

So the Californian’s asked the University of California at Davis wine department to investigate, and they reported back that - counterintuitively - a small amount (around 5% extracted more colour and flavour from Syrah.

So now the Rhone Rangers wanted to plant Viognier, but if they imported cuttings from France they’d go into quarantine for years.

Horton Vineyards in Virginia had large plantings, having found Viognier did very well in Virginia so a lot of cuttings went to California.*

Now there is so much Viognier in the world that you can buy a cheap varietal Viognier. When I started drinking wine, the only way you could taste a varietal Viognier was by buying the rare and expensive Ch Grillet.

*I was told this by Dennis Horton who originally brought Viognier from France and planted it in Virginia but I have been told since there were a few (very few) plantings in California.

15 Likes

I’m not very convinced by the herb and pepper argument. These are relatively powerful flavours, and a small quantity is intended to change the overall flavour of whatever. Grapes of different varieties are of broadly similar strength, so 2% may well have little effect.

It’s more like adding 2% habanero to a Scotch bonnet sauce and then trying to notice the difference, or perhaps adding 2% Jersey potatoes to your King Edwards mash. Would you notice? I’m not saying the 2% doesn’t make any difference, but I can easily believe that it doesn’t change much.

2 Likes

Thanks, Peter. I didn’t know about all these details, but they are consistent with the shorter version I heard, and also correspond with my hunch that colour extraction was not the original motivation.

Pinot Meunier is actually a chimera.

The inside parts of the vine, including the flesh of the grape, have the genetics pretty much of a “normal” Pinot Noir. While the outside parts are of a much more radical mutation that would hardly be viable if it took over the whole vine.

It is explained in this wikipedia article, which references if you want to check the veracity:

As an adjunct to @peterm 's excellent, and very informative, post, the small quantities are usually associated with grapes that are hugely capricious to grow, but are also unusual and/or ‘stand out’ in their personality.

So Rioja uses tiny quantities of Mazuelo and Graciano, but both seem to make a significant difference in stiffening the Tempranillo. And in Jurançon/Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, Arrufiac, Petit/Gros/Blanc Courbu, Camarelet and Lauzet - the latter few incredibly difficult to grow - add a juxtaposing minerality and florality to the rich Manseng grapes, even in small quantities. I believe Petit Verdot fulfills a similar remit in Bordeaux.

In my experience, all those small additions make a contribution to the whole far in excess of the percentages that are included.

5 Likes

Viognier - I tend to think of it as being rather peach/apricot flavoured with a tendency to heaviness on the palate if ripened too far.

However, when fermented with syrah it seems to add a lift at the very beginning of tasting on the palate, very similar to muscat wines, even though viognier on its own doesn’t taste muscatty at all. Or so it seems to me.

I got to taste two different wines when visiting an Australian producer years ago, one being one of their straight syrahs, the other their syrah/viognier. That trick seemed to work then tasting them blind, though whether my palate is up to that sort of discrimination now is another matter.

2 Likes

Yes, it would be handy if we could try lots of with and without versions of the same (more or less) wines to try to taste the differences for ourselves.

In blind tastings, it is difficult enough to identify the variety of 100% varietal wines. That is my personal experience, and I have seen it many times in others too - in people who know a lot about wine, and who have tasted widely.

On that basis I must admit that I am still very sceptical about how recognisable small percentages of additional varieties are. But I think they obviously need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. What varieties are we talking about, and what percentages?

In my orginal emphatic answer (“I would say not”), I was mainly thinking of the case of the 2% Meunier in a Champagne blend.

This is true, it can be exceedingly challenging so trying to identify a grape that makes up only one or two% of a wine - forget about it.

However, I don’t think it’s the intention of the winemaker to include marginal quantities of varieties like PM for us to be able to identify them. I think it’s about how they might affect the blend overall - what can they add to the mix?

Colour, acidity, tannin, ripeness or intensity of fruit etc; these elements can affect how we perceive the blend as a finished package, I suspect even in small quantities. If they bring something quite different to what has been used in the bulk of the wine (as @Tannatastic examples above), then the affect will be even more profound.

1 Like

In some cases, but again not so IMO with the Meunier. So I return to my point about not generalising.

Regardless of current practice with some high quality wines. I think most of it is about how traditions have established themselves in the various regions, originally for practical and economic reasons.

Agree, I’d say predominantly to do with how each grape handles the weather each season. A bit of hedging helps avoid the risk of a total loss in the more challenging seasons.