Wednesday, 1 February 2017

A wine by any other name...

Have you ever tried a wine made from the Aubaine grape? How about Luisant? Or Clevner? You might think not, but I am prepared to bet that you have. If I tell you that these are all aliases for the same grape, and that one of its other synonyms is Chaudenay, then perhaps you’ve guessed its better-known name.

Yes, Chardonnay, the most widely planted white grape in the world, is known by all these names – and many more.

How does this happen? In the days before ampelography (the science of grape vine identification), commercial vine cutting propagation and import controls and quarantine for plant materials, it’s easy to imagine how a variety, either newly arrived in a region, or already established, could end up with a myriad of aliases, with growers free to decide on a name.

Cabernet Sauvignon is sometimes known as Bordeaux in Switzerland and Bordo in Romania – a neat illustration both of how grape varieties are often known by their (sometimes supposed) origin, and how those names can mutate as they cross national and linguistic boundaries.

Not that a grape variety needs to travel very far at all to be given a different name. Some of the very many synonyms for Cabernet Sauvignon, purely within its native Bordeaux, include Bidure, (Petite) Vidure, Bouchet, Carbonet, Carbouet and Marchoupet. Carbonet may derive from Cabernet, but the others seem to bear little or no relationship to the now official name.

Just how do grape variety names come about? Some are cryptic to us now. But they sometimes refer, as with Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux, to the geographical origin. Or they describe characteristics of the vine itself – such as Pinot Meunier. Meunier means “of the miller” in French, and the vine’s leaves have a whitish floury dust on their undersides. But in other cases and with vine names often dating back many hundreds of years, their origins can remain mysterious.

Take Aglianico, a black grape famed for making deep-flavoured, smoky and tannic reds in Campania, southern Italy. The name has been thought to be a mangling over the centuries of the Italian word “hellenico”, meaning Greek. For quite a while, an accepted hyphothesis was that this variety may have been brought to Italy by the wine-loving Greeks. However, since the emergence of DNA profiling – yes, it’s not just used to catch criminals – we know that Aglianico bears no similarity to any current Greek variety, but that it does share genetic similarities with other black grapes of southern Italy. So bang goes that theory.

DNA profiling has also taught us that California’s “native” variety Zinfandel is in fact identical to southern Italy’s Primitivo – and that both are synonyms for a Croatian variety called Tribidrag. Somehow I doubt California’s winemakers are going to swap Zinfandel for Tribidrag on their labels.

As well as the same variety having bewildering number of aliases, the opposite is also true, where the same name has been given to what are, in fact, distinct varieties. The most renowned of these is Malvasia, a name which you will find on white wines from the Canaries, via Madeira (where we Brits wrangled it into Malmsey), Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Croatia. Sometimes it is the same Malvasia, often not.

How grapes get their names can be mysterious – at other times it can seem rather obvious. Returning to Cabernet Sauvignon, it seems tempting to wonder whether it could perhaps be related to the red Cabernet Franc and the white Sauvignon Blanc? Well yes, thanks, again, to DNA profiling, we now know that indeed it is the offspring of these two parent varieties. Sometimes the answer really has been staring us in the face all along.

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