Illustration by Alyssa Nassner
In the wine world, the term “noble grapes” has come to represent six well-known international varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling.
According to Gina Hennen, winemaker at Adelsheim Vineyard in Newberg, Oregon, these varieties gained their royal title in part because they have a “heightened ability to express how and where they were grown.” Plus, they’ve been planted across the globe, she says, and have formed the “cornerstone” of winemaking over the last few centuries.
Hennen works with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but she doesn’t use the term “noble grapes” to describe them. She doesn’t think it’s useful to elevate a small set of wines based on variety.
“In my mind, true provenance is a question of where the grapes are grown, how the wine is made, and whose hands were involved in that process,” she says.
Patrick Carteyron, vigneron and proprietor of Château Penin, near the Bordeaux village of Génissac, agrees. He says noble grapes have potential to produce great wines under the right circumstances, but the choices made by growers and winemakers are key, as are factors like soil and climate.
“It is not enough to choose a noble grape variety to make a noble wine,” says Carteyron.
While it’s certainly true that many other varieties also have this capacity, for a time the title flourished with authoritative voices in wine, particularly in the British wine market prior to World War I. Today, these varieties continue to be planted successfully around the world, gaining global name recognition. And so, the air of elevation persists.
While most of the noble grapes are associated with French origins, Riesling finds some of its highest expressions in German vineyards. Ursula Müller, winemaker at Weingut Schneider Müller in the Schwabsburg district of the Rheinhessen region, says that the term “noble” is fitting to Riesling, given its staying power. Still, it isn’t a word she uses very often.
“We are now making wine in the ninth generation, and Riesling has been the most important grape variety for the winery since the beginning,” says Müller. “Riesling is for us simply the most exciting grape variety. It has been for the last 100-plus years, and hopefully will be in the next 100 years.”