Why are some wines called noble? Isn’t that a bit of a slight to all other wines that don’t make this cut? If the noble nomenclature rubs your democratic sensibilities the wrong way, don’t get your palate in a pinch. Like all things wine, there are usually a couple of reasons for things like this — one likely historical and another practical. In the case of the “noble grape,” there are both. Since history typically comes first, let’s start there.
The Noble Grape, Historically Speaking
France was blessed with land and location beautifully suited to wine production. For centuries, people the world over have enjoyed the bounty and flavor of French wine making, resulting in most of the first truly great world wines. Therefore, don’t be surprised that six of the original seven noble grapes are French: Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. The non-French varietal is German Riesling. (Note that some people think there are only six original noble grapes, while others think there are seven or eight.)
What gives these special wines their historically based noble designation is that they are well known, generally well loved, and often presented as stand-alone varietals in the bottle.
The Noble Grape, Practically Speaking
Besides being ubiquitously beloved, noble grapes are also generally ubiquitously grown. Almost every variety on the noble list does well in a wide range of terroirs, even on different continents. And it isn’t only that they grow well in diverse places. They tend to adopt flavors from where they were grown, so they can be the super-fun party guest at a wine tasting. For example, you can detect a basic sameness amongst Chardonnays, yet be able to dial down to a particular Chardonnay’s terroir (a.k.a. birth place) that imparts a particular mouth feel or body that you prefer.
While having the noble nomenclature may make things easier for wine tasters to learn about wine (they’re mostly bottled as stand-alone varietals, remember?), some people take issue that by designating a particular grape as “noble,” it threatens other lesser known, or smaller harvest grapes, many of which have been uprooted in favor of planting noble vines to satisfy a larger market demand. Maybe that’s a reason some experts list as many as 20 noble grapes.
It is true that today we are becoming more familiar with a greater number of better tasting wine varieties than ever before, which in my mind not only makes many wines “noble” (in my personal sense of the word), but also the vintners who render them into such excellent wines.
What do you think of noble grapes? Please share your thoughts here. Cheers!