Berger on wine: Diversity key to each grape varietal

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I began writing about chardonnay 40 years ago. Three decades later, I began to understand it.

And my apologies to those I offended by my occasionally disparaging remarks decades ago.

People who say they understand a particular varietal wine and have from the moment they first tasted it are either naïve, delusional, or grossly misinformed, I now know.

You may like certain varietal wines more than others, and after a time you may feel comfortable about the various styles in which they can be made. But gaining a meaningful understanding of each unblended varietal grape calls for years if not decades of dedicated study, most of which can be enjoyable, but also potentially expensive.

Some of the best examples of the top varietals cost a lot of money — and usually you can’t get good examples of the best wines by buying one or two bottles.

Then there are the questions of subregional examples of various grapes as well how certain wines age. Some wines are only understandable when you taste them with age. Others are best when young.

Three major issues are at play here: how Mother Nature (climate and soil), Father Time (aging the wine), and the orchestra conductor (the winemaker) treated the raw material.

This article is the first in a haphazard series that will look at various varietals, how they have evolved over the last half-century, and why each variety can deliver widely differing wines, each valid enough to be rated as exemplary, though in divergent ways.

The articles will illustrate my belief in how diversity is vital and will address the absurdity of using scores to establish “quality” levels for wines.

The act of analyzing the quality of a wine, it’s oft said, depends solely on the nose and mouth of a skilled beholder. But more important than liking something is knowing the grape’s history and multiplicity of images and also knowing the details of what made each wine the way it is.

Our perception of various wines also is reliant on parameters considered essential for each wine. Is a 15% alcohol cabernet better than one at 12%?

Oddly, very high scores all seem related to the critic’s “likingness.” One critic calls his scale “hedonistic,” i.e., the higher it is on the theoretical hedonistic scale, the “better” it is (a hedonistic wine is pleasurable to all the senses.)

But what if the critic ranks as highest the wines that he or she prefers, but for reasons that have nothing to do with objectivity? Hedonistic wines always win. And what about wines the critic finds hedonistic, but others see as flawed?

Chardonnay is a great example to start our analysis of various grapes because it’s inordinately complicated to get to know and understand in many of its incarnations.

Let’s start with a few facts that make it one of the most complicated grapes.

Chardonnay is a shy grape that has little identifiable or distinctive varietal character — surely not the way we summarize other popular grapes, like riesling (floral, petroleum, honey) or sauvignon blanc (hay, green pepper, gooseberry, dried herbs, chamomile tea).

As a shy grape, chardonnay can be thought of as a classic variety only if it relies heavily on the shared visions of the grower and winemaker. At its best, it has good, natural acidity without much if any sweetness. Soft (sweet) versions aren’t classic because they don’t go with a wide array of foods.

Most quality chardonnays have substantial mid-palate weight compared with most other whites. But more delicate styles are equally valid.

Oaky chardonnays may be popular, but some of the best have no oak (such as a great Chablis).

Most chardonnays made in California today (notably the majority at $10 bottle or less) are bland and soft.

Only a tiny few are worth exalted prices. Many pricey versions are more a result of hype, hoopla, brand recognition and mystique than historic relevance.

Chardonnay has evolved rapidly in the last 15 years, and what once was considered a technical flaw in some versions today is an asset many wine collectors revere.

Discovery of the Week: 2016 Steele Chardonnay ($24): This superb three-county blend (Santa Barbara, Sonoma and Mendocino) splits the flavors among tropical fruit, citrus, complex elements from light barrel contact and bright acidity. Lake County winemaker Jed Steele has a broad portfolio of excellent wines, all reasonably priced, and this wine is a great example of a multipurpose wine that’s occasionally discounted. Excellent value.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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