Why do so many wineries feel compelled to make dozens of different wines?
It’s enough to make your head spin, yet it’s something I’ve noticed over and over, especially in emerging wine regions without established viticultural history. Walk into the tasting room of a New World winery with just a handful of vintages behind it and there on the chalkboard is a mind-boggling list of offerings covering most of the known wine universe, along with some items that seem to have flown in from the asteroid belt.
Are these experiments? If they are, they should be consigned to the lab, not the tasting room. One person, making white wines, red wines, sparkling wines, rosé wines, sweet wines, ice wines and fortified wines, cannot possibly do them all very well. And yet the mad scientist gene—which seems to be part of many winemakers’ DNA—will seemingly not be denied.
These newly minted winery owners and winemakers all seem to think they can grow just about anything. On the other hand, great athletes can play almost any sport. But to excel, they must pick something and stick with it.
Look at the acknowledged great vineyards in the world. They’re focused on what does best in their region. Even in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, famous for allowing up to 13 grape varieties, you are not going to find Pinot Noir in with the Syrah, or Riesling planted next to the Roussanne.
Likewise, the great Bordeaux and Burgundy producers have built their reputations on a handful of grapes. Same in the Mosel, in Piedmont, in Rioja… the list goes on.
New World wineries may celebrate the lack of legal restraints on what they are allowed to plant. But along with that freedom should come a certain responsibility to do what they do best.
The most successful wineries here in America have proven that to be true. They’ve built their reputations on a handful of defining grapes. Examples abound: Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and Walla Walla Valley Merlot, among others.
People are delighted to tie a signature grape to a specific place whenever possible, like Malbec from Argentina and Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. They appreciate being able to visit a tasting room knowing what are the must-taste wines. Slogging through a dozen so-so sips hoping to find the one wine that’s special quickly turns fun into work.
So, when touring wine country, don’t feel obligated to try everything. Focus on the varieties you know and like the best. Treat tasting room visits as you would a large wine festival—use your discrimination to impose some order.
If you’re in an unfamiliar place, find a wine shop and ask the manager or proprietor to recommend the region’s best wines and producers. He or she will point the way. And if enough consumers speak up, maybe some neophyte winemakers will also get the point.
The Tasting Plan
Do your homework. Find out what the region’s strengths are before you go. Ask a wine seller for recommendations.
Map your route. Minimize driving. Look for tasting room clusters.
Focus. What specific varieties and blends will you taste?
Take notes. It will slow down your drinking and speed up your thinking.
Keep your palate fresh. Too many wines can fatigue your senses. Avoid jumping from dry to sweet and back again.
Breathe. Drink lots of water and nibble on apples or carrots between visits.