Educating Peter, Part 2: Geography Class

In wine, the place matters as much as the grape. Film critic Peter Travers learns why from wine editor Lettie Teague. Here, the second in a three-part series.


My friend Peter Travers, the film critic of Rolling Stone, thinks about wine the way most Americans do: in terms of grapes, not geography. His reference points are Chardonnay, Cabernet and Riesling, not Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Mosel. This means Peter tends to buy domestic wines where, as he says, "the grape name is right on the bottle." But since much of the wine world (not to mention restaurant wine lists and stores) is organized by place, I decided Peter's second set of lessons should include as much map reading as it did wine tasting.

In many ways, covering the world's wine regions is even more challenging than explaining the basics of tasting, the subject of Peter's first classes. For starters, the geography of wine has grown quite immense—nearly every corner of the planet now seems to be producing wine. And the terminology, not to mention the labels, can vary considerably from one country to another, or even within the countries themselves. In France, for example, the classification systems of Burgundy and Bordeaux couldn't be more dissimilar, while in the Loire and Rhône Valleys there are none.

For our first geography lesson, I decided to focus on four of the world's most famous wine regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont and Tuscany. Educating Peter about these places that have inspired great winemakers from all over the world, I figured, would help him understand wines from other places, too.

We began with Bordeaux, as I felt it would be the easiest for a novice like Peter to grasp. Certainly it is the most orderly, thanks to the 1855 classification of its Médoc wines. This system ranks all of the best wines as crus (or "growths") one through five, with additional rankings granted to cru bourgeois estates whose wines are noteworthy but a notch below those five crus classés. It's such a successful system that even the least savvy wine drinker knows the significance of the first growth Château Lafite. The Médoc, however, only makes up part of Bordeaux's west side (the "left bank"). Other Bordeaux subregions, including St. Émilion and Pomerol, are across the Gironde estuary on the "right bank." St. Émilion has its own classification system; Pomerol has none. I showed Peter a map. "Bordeaux is like Paris, with right and left banks!" he observed with delight.

On the right bank, I told Peter, are mostly small estates and producers whose wines are largely blends of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. On the left bank are big châteaus like Latour that make mostly Cabernet-dominated wines. Peter, anti-Cab man, declared, "I won't be drinking from the left."

Bordeaux labels are straightforward too, bearing the name and picture of a château (which may or may not be where the wine is made), the wine's cru status, its vintage and any bottling facts, such as mis en bouteille au château. This last phrase, I told Peter, meant the wine was bottled on site, a sign of quality. "I like that," Peter said. "It's like mis-en-scène in movie credits."

I'd chosen two Bordeaux for Peter to taste, one from each bank: Château Coufran from the Médoc and Château Puy-Blanquet from St. Émilion. Both are minor wines, though each bottle was from the acclaimed 2000 vintage (which produced much more forward, accessible wines than is usual in Bordeaux), and each wine had been made with a high percentage of Merlot (unusual for a Médoc bottling). Though both had the soft, lush character of Merlot, the Coufran was richer and more intense. Peter agreed, declaring it the more interesting of the two. Did Peter know that the 2000 Bordeaux vintage, while great overall, was particularly successful in the Médoc? He did not. Well, I replied, knowing both the location and vintage is critical in a place like Bordeaux. "Why?" Peter said. "Is there hail?" Hail was the only reason, Peter thought, that a wine could be bad. No, I replied, but in Bordeaux there is (often) rain.

It does, however, hail quite frequently in Burgundy, I told Peter, as it's much further north than Bordeaux. I showed him on the map. Like Bordeaux, Burgundy is made up of many subregions, including Beaujolais and Chablis, though the most important is the Côte d'Or, a 30-mile corridor stretching from Dijon to Beaune. This is where great vineyards produce some of the most-imitated wines in the world. Here, instead of châteaus, are small producer-owned domaines that are rarely pictured on labels—though they too are home to some very rich men. (Burgundy prices now rival and often exceed those of Bordeaux.) But in Burgundy it is the vineyard, not the domaine, that is rated. The top vineyards (of which there are 34) are grands crus; the second best (of which there are hundreds), premiers crus. Wines made from unclassified vineyards may be called village wines, regional wines or simply Bourgogne.

For our tasting I'd chosen two village wines, both from good domaines, one red and one white, both in Peter's price range (although at $40 to $50 a bottle, they were beyond his usual budget). The red was a 2001 Gevrey-Chambertin from Robert Groffier. "All red Burgundy is made from Pinot Noir, unless it's Beaujolais, in which case the grape is Gamay," I said to him. "And all white is Chardonnay." (For Peter, the Chardonnay lover, this was welcome news.) I thought the Gevrey had good acidity and the appealing spice and cherry notes of a young Burgundy, while Peter admired its "berry aroma." I'd chosen the white, a 2002 Colin-Deléger Puligny-Montrachet, for its richness and intense minerality. Peter focused on what he called "the oakiness," though, he declared, "there's a lot of other stuff going on too." (Peter not only refused to spit it out, he even considered sneaking it into a screening later that day.) Where was it made? he wanted to know. I showed Peter the town of Puligny-Montrachet on the map, explaining that the name came from linking the village name (Puligny) with that of its most famous vineyard, Le Montrachet, the source of some of the world's greatest Chardonnays (though not of the $50 Colin-Deléger we just tasted). How much is a wine from a Le Montrachet vineyard? Peter asked hopefully. Prices start at about $300 a bottle, I replied. "That's a wine I'll never taste," he predicted dolefully.

Although I next wanted to talk about Italy's two greatest wine regions, Piedmont and Tuscany, when I mentioned Tuscany's star, Chianti, that was all Peter heard. "Chianti is Scorsese's wine," he said, naming his favorite director. Well, I replied, I was certain Martin Scorsese must also be an admirer of Barolo, the great wine of Piedmont and the generally regarded King of all Italy.

The region of Piedmont, in northern Italy, is home to many different wines, though none more famous than Barolo and Barbaresco. While both were once made in a formidably tannic, long-lived style (Barbaresco slightly less so), the two are often now produced in a softer, more fruit-forward style. What remains the same is their trademark aromas of earth, spices, tobacco and roses. Indeed, in part because of these gorgeous aromas, some Barolo and Barbaresco producers have been known to liken their wines to great red Burgundies. "Why? Are Barolos and Barbarescos also made from Pinot Noir?" Peter wanted to know. In fact, I replied, the grape is Nebbiolo, which is similar in many ways to Pinot.

Piedmont has other things in common with Burgundy too. For example, Barolo and Barbaresco take their names from two towns (though, to complicate matters, they are not the only places where those wines are made), and the vineyard here is also of great importance. For example, the Barolo we tasted, the 2000 Michele Chiarlo Cerequio, was a single-vineyard wine. It was from a great vintage and, at $90, was priced accordingly. Peter gave it a whiff. Though he correctly detected earthiness and cherries, he couldn't find roses or tar. ("And I'm glad," he said.)

We moved on to Tuscany, home of Chianti. "Is Chianti a grape?" Peter wanted to know. Despite all his maps, Peter was still thinking grapes, not geography. No, I replied, Chianti is a region in Tuscany not unlike the Médoc in Bordeaux. I pulled out a map. The grape of Chianti is Sangiovese, I told Peter, a fairly high-acid red that does well when blended with grapes like Cabernet and Merlot. (These blends are known as Super-Tuscans.) Peter studied the label of the Chianti we tasted, the 1999 Melini La Selvanella Chianti Classico Riserva. "I don't see the name Sangiovese," he said, though he appreciated the picture on the label, which he proclaimed "just like Bordeaux." Upon tasting the wine (which I found impressively dense and flavorful), Peter delivered his highest form of praise: "It tastes like a grape."

Since Peter was still so grape-minded, I decided to devote the next class to one grape, Riesling, from the areas where it does well all over the world: Australia, France, New Zealand, Germany, Washington State and New York. I wanted Peter to experience the influence a place could have on a grape, and I could think of no grape that would better illustrate that point than Riesling, which can transmit the taste of a place with great emphasis and clarity.

But before we started tasting Rieslings, Peter wanted to talk about the wines he'd had over the weekend with John Irving at the Nantucket Film Festival (Irving's latest novel had been made into a film). "I talked to John Irving, and he actually listened. He's really into wine," Peter reported. "We had a Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc that I described as 'flinty,' but John Irving told me that was a boring word. He said 'Try another word.' But I didn't have any other words."

The first Riesling we tasted was the 2002 Dr. Loosen Bernkasteler Lay Kabinett from the Mosel region of Germany, famous for its delicate, nuanced wines. Here I gave Peter a chart instead of a map, explaining the complicated German Prädikat system, which doesn't categorize wines by châteaus or vineyards but by ripeness of the fruit. Kabinett was the lightest or "least ripe" designation. Peter said "I'm going to learn the German system," an impressive pledge and not one many Americans, or probably even many Germans, have made.

As we tasted the Rieslings, Peter assumed a confident air. Here was a grape he felt he knew well, though perhaps not according to where it was grown. He liked the aroma and mineral taste of the Loosen but complained that it "didn't go anywhere." The 2002 Hugel from Alsace "smelled like petrol," Peter said; I had to agree. "Even though I love gas stations, I don't want to be reminded of them when I drink wine," Peter complained. He did, however, appreciate the fact that in Alsace, producers put grape names on the wine label—the only great French region to do so.

I liked the racy acidity and weight of the third wine, the 2003 Grosset Polish Hill from Clare Valley in Australia, a place noted for the purity of its Rieslings, but Peter declared it was "like a heavier, denser Sauvignon Blanc." The next wine, the 2003 Grove Mill from Marlborough, New Zealand, made him happy. Although it had that region's trademark firm acidity, it also had a bit of the sweetness Peter loves. It reminded him of the wine he drank with Peter Jackson, the director of The Lord of the Rings. "I was in a hotel suite with Peter Jackson and his partner, who were drinking a New Zealand Riesling like this and a Sauvignon Blanc. I had the Riesling but not the Sauvignon because it reminded me of asparagus. It was also incredibly cold. I asked them 'Did you chill the Sauvignon too long?' They were incredibly intimidated. But then they started asking questions I couldn't answer, like could they have red wine with Indian food?"

"We'll talk about that later," I replied. We had more Rieslings to taste, including two of my favorites from America: the 2003 Eroica from Washington and the 2003 Standing Stone from New York's Finger Lakes. I was surprised by the Eroica's dominant acidity—the kind of wine that made Peter say "ouch"—though we both loved the mineral-rich Standing Stone, which Peter said had "a clarity and a kind of pop in the mouth."

For our third and final tasting session, I poured wines from all over the world, mainly from places that make good wines at Peter-style prices (i.e., less than $20 a bottle). I thought if I introduced him to a few new names and regions, he might feel freer to experiment with others on his own. And of course, I knew that an obscure wine would appeal to Peter, who likes knowing things that most people do not.

We tasted white wines from northern Italy; then we detoured into Spain, trying both reds and whites. I had worried that Peter would be exhausted by tasting so many different wines from so many places, but he actually seemed exhilarated by the task. Especially when we got to Australia.

Though many people think of Australia as one big wine monolith (thanks to mass-produced brands such as Yellow Tail), the country has a number of distinct wine regions and styles. Two bottles Peter particularly liked were the 2002 Yangarra Old Vine Grenache ("It's so soft and rich") from the McLaren Vale in South Australia, and the 2000 McWilliam's Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra, another region in South Australia that is particularly noted for its Cabernet. Coonawarra is known for producing smooth, fairly accessible Cabernets without lots of alcohol—a style perfectly suited to Peter's tastes. Indeed, the McWilliam's managed a near-impossible feat: It caused Peter to reconsider his anti-Cabernet stance. "It doesn't leave a cigarette taste in my mouth," he announced.

Once we'd finished tasting through the Australian wines, I suggested that perhaps the time had come to visit a wine shop. Peter could exercise his new knowledge of geography there and perhaps even buy a bottle or two. We went to Sherry-Lehmann, a fancy store on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. "This is one of the most famous wine retailers in New York," I told Peter, who admitted he had never really shopped for wine before, certainly not by region. "I just go to my local wine guy, Charlie Rodriguez, and ask him to give me something." At first Peter just browsed the aisles. "There's Tuscany," he marveled. "And Bordeaux and Burgundy and the Mosel." California, arranged according to grape rather than region, now bored him, Peter said: "It just seems so obvious."

We went over to the Australian section. Peter searched for the McWilliam's Cabernet, but to no avail. In fact, he couldn't find any wines from Coonawarra. But there were four salespeople nearby who might be able to help. "I'm looking for McWilliam's Cabernet," Peter said to one, who shook his head and said "Never heard of it." Peter pressed on: "It's from Coonawarra." The man looked at him blankly. "Australia," Peter clarified. "We don't have it," the salesman replied, turning to his colleague. "Ever heard of it?" She had not. "Maybe," said Peter, "I'll do my wine shopping on the Internet instead."

Although his new knowledge of geography had helped Peter navigate a wine shop, it hadn't, alas, guaranteed him good service. But that was alright, Peter said consolingly, because it had already come in handy when he ordered wine in restaurants. For example, he had learned where to look on a wine list for Chardonnay and Riesling. "Now," said Peter, "I don't mind if my friends hand me the list and ask me to order the wine." That was perfect, I replied, because during our next set of tutorials he'd be doing just that.

The last installment of "Educating Peter" will appear in the November issue.

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