The current wine world is one in which all of those grape varietals deemed “normal” by not just the wine-drinking public but also many (alleged) wine journalists and sommeliers are those grapes bearing French names: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, . The only grapes without a French moniker that garner any significant name recognition are Pinot Grigio (Italian) and Riesling (German/Alsatian).
So why is that? Wine grapes, after all, didn’t originate in France or Italy or even Germany. The grapes probably game from the Near East, with the modern Vinifera originating in Iran and the first white grape mutations developing somewhere in the Caucasus region. First the Phoenicians and then the Greeks brought grapes from the eastern Mediterranean to the rest of Europe and Africa’s Mediterranean coast and the Romans trucked those vines inland. It’s unfortunate that wine’s ancient homeland spent centuries under alcohol-intolerant Islamic rule and, more recently, Communist dictatorship, both of which resulted in vines being torn up in favor of other crops (in the first case) or in favor of new, more productive, and less distinctive varietals (in the second case).
So why French grapes? Despite centuries of conflict, the British have always had a taste for the wines of France, especially the age-worthy wines of Bordeaux which could be transported without spoilage more easily than many other wines and no doubt this preference spilled over into Britain’s North American colonies. America’s early Francophilia also played a role, with French cuisine dominating the early fine dining restaurants of the Northeast and French wines dominating the collections of early wine enthusiasts, especially with domestic wines of similar quality being wholly unavailable in the eastern US.
But in California, where an absence of phylloxera allowed European grapevines to flourish, different vines took off, brought by California’s early settler groups from Spain, Italy, and Southeastern Europe. California’s signature Zinfandel originated in Croatia and Italian immigrants brought Charbono, Barbera and other Italian peasant grapes to California and these grapes flourished up until Prohibition severely curtailed domestic grape growing.
After Prohibition, those same non-French grapes were prevalent, but in an effort to mass-market the wines, they were thrown into blends and labeled with names evocative of the great wines of France. When Robert Mondavi spurred the “varietal revolution” in wine labeling and began producing consistent, varietally-labeled wines, he successfully helped turn “Chardonnay” into a brand, not just a grape.
But even through the 1970s, California’s boutique winery industry was producing varietally-labeled Charbono, Gamay Noir and Mission wines. The final piece of the puzzle was 1976’s Judgment of Paris, where California Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends were judged better than White Burgundy and Red Bordeaux, widely regarded as France’s best white and red wines. After that, you couldn’t find a California winery that didn’t produce a Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot and those French grapes became the standard of California wine making, despite their marginal role in the first two centuries of California wine.
So the French primacy is really largely a product of circumstance. Have the inherent qualities of some of these grapes led to their global success? Sure, but France’s wine-making pre-eminence in the Anglosphere for the last two hundred years certainly didn’t hurt. I wonder what could be accomplished if Tempranillo or Sangiovese is given the same attention in California as Cabernet and Merlot. The good news is, a new wave of wine makers are experimenting successfully with these grapes and beginning to produce world class wines.