Are some grapes doomed to be second rate?

What makes one grape highly prized, while another is an also-ran? Robert Joseph considers the question.

Photo by Jon Moore on Unsplash
Photo by Jon Moore on Unsplash

“This recipe is a great thing to do with trout, because most farmed trout doesn’t taste of very much.”

The great British chef Shaun Hill and I were on a stage at the BBC Good Food Show in Birmingham. He was about to demonstrate his recipe for tea-smoked trout, and I was going to match it with a couple of wines. 

At the side of the stage, the young woman who’d arranged for us both to be there – and who was paying our fees – looked anguished. She gestured towards a disgruntled pair of men in dark suits.

These were the representatives of the Ulster Trout Promotion Board. They were standing beneath a sign announcing the board’s proud sponsorship of the theatre in which we were standing. 

Fortunately for the blood pressure of those two gentlemen, Hill didn’t describe trout as being a ‘shit fish’. Unlike the wine professionals who created recent online debate by calling varieties like Aligoté and Trebbiano ‘shit grapes’.

As someone who loves innovation and breaking down barriers, I sympathise with those who dislike any kind of  ‘caste system’ that sets some grapes above others. I agree there are lots of times when a chilled Trebbiano might be a more welcome drink than a classed growth Médoc. But, at least for me, the same might be said for a good cold beer or gin and tonic.

On the other hand, however delicious the Aligoté wines some wine producers can produce, this is still an innately less fine and noble grape than Chardonnay. And I learned about that difference in the Côte d’Or among people who grew both grapes – and often offered a little local cassis to go with the former. Gamay can produce extraordinarily delicious wines in the Cru villages of Beaujolais and, on occasion, it is easy to mistake old bottles for Côte de Beaune Pinot Noir – but not the finest Côte de Beaune Pinot Noir.

Whether we like it or not, the world is full of caste systems. The Monopoly board evokes the one controlling the prices we all pay for our homes. We love to watch sports teams and individuals climb or slip down league tables that define whether they are worth coverage by major media. Actors and producers know how big a financial difference there is between a show being on- and off-Broadway. Talk to any coffee buff and they’ll tell you that Robusta beans with their bitter, high-caffeine content, are, to put it politely, second class. Chefs, in my experience, are rarely reticent about what they consider to be ‘shit’ ingredients, and why they – and their customers – pay premium prices for stuff that one might class as higher-caste.

When those professional cooks are obliged to work with ingredients they don’t rate highly, they come up with ways to make the most of the strengths and compensate for the weaknesses. Tough cuts of meat are stewed slowly, quite possibly with a good dollop of wine and stock. Less flavoursome ones are helped along with other ingredients or herbs and spices. Some Robusta beans go into high quality blends; most end up as instant coffee.

And so to ‘lower-caste’ grapes, like Aligoté, Airen, Bourboulenc, Chasselas, Palomino, Rkatsiteli, Trebbiano and Carignan. Fans of esoteric wine will always delight in finding examples of these that, thanks to the peculiarities of the site where the vines were planted and/or the skills of the winemaker, taste extraordinary. Wines like Christophe Barbier’s ungrafted-old-vine pure Bourboulenc Terres Salées, and Leroy’s Aligoté. The praise these wines receive may encourage other producers to experiment with them. This will be not only very welcome in a homogenous world; it will provide valuable information as the effects of climate change accelerate.

But those pure, single-varietal wines will always be marginal. Chardonnay and Sauvignon drinkers will never switch en masse to Aligoté or Bourboulenc.

What might happen – far more interestingly in my opinion – is that they discover and fall in love with exciting, distinctive blends combining wines of various castes. I’ve enjoyed some delicious Meunier but would never suggest that it’s as ‘fine’ as Pinot Noir. Yet it still makes an invaluable contribution to Krug. I could make a similar point about Petit Verdot, and obstinately believe that Merlot and Grenache are – with exceptions – better in blends than as soloists.

Some of the most exciting wines I’ve enjoyed in recent times have been field-blends like Phil Reedman MW’s Antiquarian, produced in Australia’s Riverland using lower-caste grapes such as Muscadelle and Colombard, along with the more aristocratic Chenin Blanc and Semillon. In my ideal world, there would be far more encouragement for wines like this, including co-ferments of red and white. As Reedman says, “variety is the best variety.”

Calling any grape ‘shit’ isn’t very helpful, but nor is suggesting that a triangle or a timpani is as fine an instrument as a piano or a violin. Both have their essential roles in the orchestra, but neither is very likely to get many of its own concertos.

And, as for Shaun Hill’s trout dish, all you need is a wok with a lid, one of those vegetable steamers that unfolds, a bit of aluminium foil, some lapsang souchong tea and demerara sugar. Put the tea and sugar on the foil beneath the steamer on which you lay the oiled fish. Pop on the lid and cook over a high heat for around 10 minutes. 

Even the Ulstermen reluctantly agreed that it did wonders for the fish… A bit like adding cassis to Aligoté.

Robert Joseph



Latest Articles