Noble Grapes

I was reading several web sites and looking at definitions of noble grapes. I see that there used to be just a few dating back over a hundred years. I also see that the list is expanding which I believe is good. However, I was quite surprised that Zinfandel was still not on the arguably decided list of 18 noble grapes. The current list that I found is as follows:
Pinot Noir
Cabernet Sauvignon
Pinot Grigio
Sauvignon Blanc
Chanin Blanc

I also found a great article written by Bedrock Wine Co. on the Zinfandel grape and why it is a noble grape.

I would add Fiano and Aglianico, and take off Moscato and Gewürztraminer. I love Moscato but can’t imagine calling it noble, and I hate Gewürztraminer.

Robert -

It’s more or less a bullshit term that was coined years ago by people who liked several grapes more than others. There’s no “official” definition anywhere and it’s only recently that things like Tempranillo would be included, much less things like Pinot Grigio.

Basically, the term came from a time around WWI and WW2 when the French wine industry was the only one really important on the world market, the industries of other countries having been bombed back into the last century.

From the great Emile Peynaud:

“. . . There are noble varieties which are the only ones capable of producing wines of refinement and longevity, recognizable for their fine flavor and the power and individuality of their aromas. Some of these have become so well adapted to their original production zones that, transplanted elsewhere, they become virtually unrecognizable. Such is the case with Pinot and Merlot. Other noble varieties such as Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon have a more stable character and their more general success has meant that they are planted worldwide.

There are also semi-noble varieties which can produce and excellent wine in a particular area, but which yield something very ordinary elsewhere. Example of these are the Tempranillo in Rioja, the Palomino in Jerez, the Nebbiolo in Piedmont, the Sangiovese in Chianti, the Grenache in Chateauneuf du Pape, Navarre or Sardinia, and many others.

Finally, there are the common grape varieties with produce neutral table wines of little quality. They are grown purely for their high yield which makes an indifferent product profitable; often, alas, all to profitable.”

He gives a tip of the hat to Riesling, which in his youth made some of the most expensive wines in the world, and he notes Palomino, because that too was very important in the British market of the Victorian era.

But his context is clearly France and he included only six grapes. Most importantly, he spoke before the death of Franco, the fall of the Iron Curtain, the death of Pinochet, the end of Argentine dictatorship, the rise of Australia, and the end of apartheid, not to mention the explosion of interest in the US. Washington and Oregon didn’t even exist as serious wine making regions when he spoke, much less New York, New Zealand, and Michigan, and places like Greece, Austria, Portugal, Hungary, Romania, and Croatia were losing centuries of tradition, some of it pre-dating wine production in France.

People use the term as if it means something, but it doesn’t. Garnacha in Priorat? Well that came along in the 1990s. The grape planted for high yield all over the south of France? Carignan, which people have since learned can make profound, age-worthy wines.

So IMO, it’s really a term that does nothing except show ignorance. For all his knowledge, he was, and had to be, ignorant of the revolution in the wine world that was going to take place in the next fifty years. One can forgive him because he was a serious and passionate student of grapes and wine and given the circumstances of the time, he was probably quite correct. But it’s flat out dumb for people to keep using the term today. There’s no reason to suppose that the entire planet has been planted with every possible type of grape that can ever exist and of those, only six merit attention. And it’s even more ridiculous for people to suggest that no, it’s not six, it’s now sixteen! They need to learn more, taste more, and be less dismissive of things they don’t know.

And I agree that there’s nothing wrong with Zin! I also agree with Oliver except that I wouldn’t add Fiano and since I don’t care for Pinot Noir in general, I’d kill that too. See how pointless it gets?

Yep. Look at most of the early experience of Pinot Noir in California. Most people had no clue where to grow it, how to treat the vines or how to make the wine. Don’t blame the grape. Different grapes prefer different sites. It’s all about matching up all the factors to make a great wine. Some shunned European varieties have excelled elsewhere, and surely more can be found. Some workhorse varieties get a bad reputation because they all able to excel, relatively, in poor sites. Other varieties are unforgiving to the wrong sites and vineyard and winemaking practices. Who cares if some variety can only excel in one 4 acre plot in the whole world or whatever, as long as it excels.

Chardonnay is “noble” precisely because it’s so boring, while complete. It’s maleable and transparent, with just enough substance to fill out the frame it is provided. In contrast, even a badly made Nerello Mascalese is telling you it wants to excel. The best are mind blowing.

Greg and Wes - well said!

Maybe we should have a poll on which noble grapes should be demoted.

Then a poll on what should be elevated.

(I do think you’re unfair to Gewürz. I would nominate Nerello Mascalese for promotion.)

If noble means “wines of refinement and longevity”, then Muscat, Viognier, Pinot Grigio, Gewürztraminer, and Malbec should come off the list.

I think anyone posting on which grapes are noble should have their nose in the air. And when they drink, they must put their pinky in the air as well.

Wait. Ken, you don’t put your pinky in the air?

I do. But only when drinking Zinfandel, Aglianico, Petite Sirah, or Sagrantino.

Btw, “muscat” is a descriptor part of some grape names, the same way “petit”, “tinta” or “blanc” are. Some of the different muscat grapes are very distantly related to each other. That seems to be a characteristic in the genetic material that can toggle on and off with mutation. “Gewurz” is pretty much the same descriptor, meaning aromatically floral/spicy. Gewurztraminer is a mutation of Traminer.

Pinot Gris is a mutation of Pinot Noir, so it’s technically the same variety. Of course there are some pretty shitty clones of Pinot Noir out there. There’s also some spectacular late harvest Alsatian Pinot Gris.

So no one will guess what you’re drinking? :wink: neener

Thank God, you had me worried there for a minute.


I’m sorry, but to me Gewürztraminer smells like bad hair oil.

Nothing noble about Zinfandel. Probably ten grapes that should be considered in front of it.

Why is the world of wine so obsessed with ranking and imposing hierarchy over everything—and especially things that are inherently subjective? The only trait more annoying is the terminology used in the process (see, e.g., “mouth feel”).

Well gents, I guess that decides it.

Happy you agree.

Along with Aglianico already mentioned, I think Cabernet Franc and Grüner Veltliner should be included.

And let me guess … they’re all Italian? [rofl.gif]