It’s Time to Put the Noble Grapes in Their Place

The way people talk about wine often reflects their other beliefs about the world.

When gender attributes were more rigidly defined than they are now, for example, it was common to hear wines described as masculine or feminine. This has diminished, though, as people have come to see that gender does not predestine character and personality.

Similarly, in socially stratified societies, wines were commonly discussed in terms of their class or breeding. This tendency, too, has ebbed, as social orders in many places have become more fluid.

Wine grapes, however, still seem to be in the grip of an inflexible caste system that establishes the limits of a grape’s potential. Some people, like the writer Robert Joseph, defend this hierarchical view of grapes. But to me, it’s a narrow-minded, obstinate and sadly condescending way to look at a world of wine that has become far more egalitarian than it’s ever been before.

Until fairly recently, generations of wine authorities habitually referred to the “noble” grapes, classically a group of six considered to have aristocratic potential: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling. The constituency differed slightly depending on who was doing the ordaining, but this was the core group.

Notice something about them? Five are French, and one, riesling, is German, though it’s grown in Alsace as well. It’s not surprising. The phrase originated in France (cepages nobles), and was popularized in Britain, a prime market for French wines and, before World War I, for German wines as well.

Even as societies have become more socially mobile, the popular idea of nobility among grapes has hung on stubbornly, though it has expanded somewhat. One recent grouping put the number at 18.

But while that was a laudable effort to democratize the upper class of grapes, it was still a class system, too rigid and limiting to contribute to a comprehensive understanding of wine and how to drink it.

Grapes themselves offer only faint clues to the wines they will ultimately produce. The mere fact of producing wine with merlot, a grape in the pantheon, means nothing. Pomerols, made largely with merlot, are among the world’s great wines. The lakes of merlot made elsewhere? Occasionally I find a pretty good bottle. But ultimately, Pomerols and other merlots have little in common.

Chardonnay has surely played a role in great wines made year after year. But I’ve had far more bad chardonnays than good ones.

I’ve also had far more mediocre than inspiring bottles of aligote, which is not surprising. Aligote would make most lists of roundly despised grapes, often producing thin, acidic wines that were historically spiked with a glug of creme de cassis, rendering the wine palatable as kir.

In Burgundy, few would debate the relative status of chardonnay and aligote, the two leading white grapes in the region. That’s why chardonnay is planted in the best sites, and aligote gets whatever is left over. With grapes, site is often destiny.

Nonetheless, these days, some Burgundy vignerons, like Sylvain Pataille in Marsannay and Pierre de Benoist, would argue that if aligote were given the same love and care as chardonnay, people would be astonished at how good the wines could be.

Wine is so much more than simply the grapes that form its basis. What is poured from the bottle is ultimately a combination of the grapes, the site in which the grapes were grown, the farming, the winemaking, the vintage character, and the intent and skill of the people who oversaw the production.

In the same way, selecting a wine requires considering far more than the social standing of grapes. What’s the occasion? What are we eating? What’s the mood and the ambience?

Different wines fit different occasions. If you are sharing a pizza, a good, dry Lambrusco will be a better choice than a fine Bordeaux, even though the Bordeaux was made of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Who can even name the grapes in Lambrusco? (For the record, lambrusco sorbara, lambrusco grasparossa and lambrusco salamino are three of many possibilities.)

Ah, but the Bordeaux grapes have the capacity to make a profound wine, some will say, one that can age and evolve for years. Can Lambrusco do that?

I don’t know whether anybody has ever tried to make a contemplative Lambrusco, but it does not matter. The point is that Lambrusco and many wines like it will enhance certain occasions in ways that cabernet sauvignon, no matter how exalted, will not.

Everyday bottles like these will grace most tables far more often than wines that give “noble grapes” their standing. The role they play shapes how we ultimately perceive wine.

More important, hierarchies are often created out of ignorance. Historically, those who ranked grapes elevated varieties in wines they knew intimately, grapes that had been lavished with care and attention. They ignored or demeaned grapes that they did not know well or that had never received much attention.

Forty years ago, did anybody recognize the potential of mencia, the main red grape of Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo in northwestern Spain? What about nerello mascalese, the major red grape of the Mount Etna region of Sicily, or carricante, its white counterpart? Or assyrtiko, the white grape of Santorini?

All of these grapes have demonstrated in recent decades that they have the capacity to yield exceptional wines that can age and evolve. They can be beautiful. They may not have the glorious histories of pinot noir or riesling, but their legacies are still being recorded.

They almost had no new story to write. In the 1980s, wine companies driven by commercial imperatives planted a lot of merlot and chardonnay in Sicily, for example, instead of nurturing indigenous varieties. Those efforts largely ended up on ignoble ash heaps.

Many grapes have been falsely judged. Carignan, with a long history of being grown for volume rather than quality, was thought to be a grape of poor quality. But it has shown that it can make lovely wines.

I have had wonderful wines made of cinsault. But in her 1986 book, “Vines, Grapes and Wines: A Wine Drinker’s Guide to Grape Varieties,” no less an authority than Jancis Robinson wrote that cinsault had “a rather meaty, chunky sort of flavor, uncomfortably suggestive of dog food to some.”

Several decades later, in her 2012 book, “Wine Grapes,” written with Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz, cinsault was instead described as an “underrated Mediterranean-loving variety making characterful roses and flirtatious reds.”

Opinions evolve, at least with open-minded people. I would wager that we still don’t know the potential of dozens of grapes like cinsault. They may be waiting for sympathetic producers like Stefan Vetter, who has demonstrated in the Franken region of Germany that silvaner, often an afterthought among white grapes, can make wines that rival any other for depth and complexity.

“Wine Grapes,” by the way, covered 1,368 varieties, listing them alphabetically, unlike Ms. Robinson’s earlier book, which grouped “classic varieties,” “major varieties” and “other varieties.”

“The alphabetical order was important to me because I would not want to make (sometimes) arbitrary decisions on which grape variety would be ‘noble’ or not,” Mr. Vouillamoz, one of the authors, wrote by email from Switzerland.

For a symposium in London on grape varieties in 2012, he said, he surveyed the literature and showed that some grapes, like gamay and cinsault, had been considered either noble or common, depending on the author and the region.

I haven’t even mentioned hybrid grapes, varieties created by breeding one species, Vitis vinifera, which comprises all the historic European wine grapes, with another, like Vitis labrusca, a native grape of America.

Hybrids have long been considered lesser grapes, rarely capable of producing compelling wines. Yet cold-climate producers like Deirdre Heekin of La Garagista in Vermont have proven otherwise, making some of the most interesting American wines out of hybrid grapes.

I’m not saying that all grapes have the capacity to make great wines. I have yet to find a Muller-Thurgau worth championing, for example. But I would not want to rule out the possibility.

If the recent history of wine has shown us anything, it is how little we know about the potential of any grapes to make great wines. A caste system for grapes is a backward-looking approach to a world with wonderful possibilities ahead of it.