Wine: What's in a name?

Recognising that the world neither begins nor ends with chardonnay, winemakers are increasingly cross-pollinating local and indigenous grapes with the well-travelled classic varieties
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Make mine a chardonnay? A cabernet? A sauvignon blanc? The New World-led preference for grape varieties over appellation has transformed our understanding and enjoyment of different styles of wine. Now, producers, many of them flying winemakers, are going one stage further. Recognising that the world neither begins nor ends with chardonnay, they are increasingly cross-pollinating local and indigenous grapes - many of them unheard of or in danger of extinction - with the well-travelled classic varieties.

Australia's Peter Bright was one of the first to spot the potential of native varieties after going to work for Joao Pires in Portugal's Setbal peninsula. Ever since, he has been a fan of Portugal's native aromatic fernao pires grape, which, with chardonnay, he has blended to make the 1994 Bright Brothers Fernao Pires/Chardonnay, Ribatejo, pounds 3.79, Safeway, Victoria Wine. The Bright technical wizardry has produced a spicy blend whose moreish orange and lemon zesty character is enhanced by a refreshing prickle of acidity.

After more than a decade of winemaking in Portugal, itchy feet have taken Peter Bright on a globetrotting expedition in search of exotic new combinations, many of them commissioned exclusively for Sainsbury's. One such varietal joint venture, in this instance linking chardonnay with Sicily's native inzolia, is Sainsbury's Sicilian Inzolia Chardonnay, Peter Bright, pounds 3.49. This is an affordable, refreshingly dry southern Italian white with a hint of the baked banana character sometimes found on modern Mediterranean whites.

John Worontschak is another member of the fleet air arm pushing back the frontiers of wine. Having made a name for himself creating vinous silk purses out of England's sow's ear grapes, Worontschak has recently found time to travel to Canada, Brazil and South Africa, mostly on behalf of Tesco. I am not yet entirely convinced that we're all ready yet for the novelties Canada and Brazil have to offer, but blending South Africa's colombard with chardonnay on the other hand, at the Graham Beck's Madeba winery, has produced an attractively fresh, buttery-crisp dry South African Chardonnay/ Colombard, pounds 3.99, Tesco.

Worontschak is frank in admitting that his first thought in creating such a project for Tesco was not so much from a burning mission to promote indigenous varieties as how to keep the price down. Chardonnay is normally dearer than local grapes - not only in South Africa - so it is logical to introduce the widely planted colombard, both for its price and its ability to complement chardonnay in the blend. "You get a bit of guava character with colombard, but it's essentially neutral, while the chardonnay is picked ripe for its melon and fig character," says Worontschak. "For pounds 3.99, you're getting chardonnay flavour without paying a chardonnay price tag."

Kym Milne, who also makes wine in South Africa, among a host of other countries, agrees that classic grapes can help sell a wine - both from a stylistic and a marketing point of view. Chardonnay, for instance, brings richness and flavour to the blend, while sauvignon blanc brings aroma - both characters with which consumers have become familiar and consequently look for. In South Africa, Milne has combined the local chenin blanc with sauvignon to make a fine 1995 blend (at Victoria Wine in the autumn) and an attractively juicy quaffing red, the 1994 Cape View Cinsault-Shiraz, pounds 3.99, Victoria Wine, which blends the widely available cinsault with shiraz.

Behind the quaint olde worlde name of the 1994 Domaine Vieux Manoir de Maransan, Cotes du Rhone Blanc, pounds 3.99, Fuller's, Safeway, for instance, lies a multi-blend of the southern Rhone grapes, grenache, roussanne, viognier, clairette and ugni blanc. Made by a French winemaker, Francis Broche, with help from Australia's Nick Butler, this modern, ripe, seductively fruity blend has a distinct New World-meets-Rhone Valley feel.

The Australian company Penfolds' venture into southern France has produced another multi-blend, albeit of a rather more Mediterranean character, the 1994 Laperouse, Vin de Pays d'Oc, about pounds 4.49, Oddbins, Thresher, Victoria Wine, Tesco, Waitrose, Safeway. Named after the 18th century French count who failed to make Oz a French colony by the whisker of his moustache, it is a perfumed, delicately citrusy, unoaked blend of chardonnay, marsanne, colombard and grenache. Produced in a joint venture with the Val d'Orbieu group, it is handsomely packaged in a tapered Italian designer bottle.

Unfortunately, while blending allows producers maximum flexibility, the resulting label often fails to provide consumers with the full information needed to make their choice of purchase. One of the main problems with varietal blends is what to call the wine. The European Union will accept up to two grape varieties on the label. But in France national provisions override EU rules, so, with minor exceptions, which include Alsace and parts of Burgundy and the Loire, the French do not allow any grape variety on the label of their appellation controlee wines. Vin de pays, despite the proliferation of blends, can only show a single grape variety (although some producers are beginning to ignore the rules).

Ironically, Australia is now the only wine producing country permitted to name up to five grape varieties on the label. Following a cunningly negotiated agreement with the European Union, Oz has in turn agreed to give up using generic French names such as beaujolais and champagne. The only limitation is that grapes have to be shown in the proportion in which they are used in the blend. Thus a grenache-based blend with only a small amount of cabernet sauvignon cannot trade on the cabernet name by putting the cabernet first.

As new wine regions and countries continue to surprise and delight with lesser-known alternatives to the popular classics, denying consumers the opportunity to appreciate fully the emerging new styles is pointless. Since the provision of full information on grape varieties is as much a tool in the producer's armoury as a benefit to consumers, when will the breakthough negotiated with Australia be universally applied?

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