For many people, the notion of how wine is made boils down to something like this: there exists a plot of vines from which a winemaker harvests a crop of one variety of grapes – say chardonnay or merlot – which he (or she) then takes into a cellar, crushes, ferments and matures, then sells under his own label. This of course happens – but it’s really just the barest sketch of how things are really done – a kind of child’s picture-book version of the process.
In reality, most properties that farm grapes for their own label will have a diversity of fruit sources. There may be more than one variety planted, for example, and multiple plots each with a somewhat different exposition, soil type, drainage, etc. Holdings might be contiguous (which is how we tend to think of a wine estate); but are equally or perhaps more likely to scattered here and there. It often happens that a single winemaker may be working with some vineyards she owns and some she rents, or with some fruit that she grows herself and some she purchases from a neighbor.
We can’t go into all the possible permutations. It’s enough to say that most winemakers are working with what they recognize as distinct lots of raw material, and when this is the case the tendency today is to make separate vats of wine out of each and later combine them. The aim is to make a blended wine that takes advantage of the differences in the various lots to make a better wine than any individual one might on its own. Because a fermenting vat is called, in French, a cuve, a wine assembled from various lots is called a cuvee (koo-VAY). So, as soon as you hear or see this term applied you know that you’re dealing with a composite wine of this sort: a wine that has been designed to include a variety of fruit sources or from the same fruit source segments of which have been handled differently in the cellar. In a recent MIlk Steet Radio segment, I poured several wines for Christopher that fit this profile to demonstrate the concept.
Wine 1. 2014 Piaugier Sablet.
Sablet is one of the villages in the Cotes du Rhone appellation that gets to put its own name on the label. The standards for winemaking from these cru villages is a bit higher than for generic Cotes du Rhone. It’s normally a little fancier wine and fetches slightly higher prices. This one – an FKC clientele favorite – is on the shelf at $19.
The domaine’s holdings are divided into multiple plots on different soil types : clay with limestone and sand, clay with chalk, sand and gravel. The vines here are 20-40 years old.
Fruit is harvested and vinified separately, parcel by parcel, giving each vat its own specific character. There are two different grape varieties involved – grenache and syrah. In the southern Rhone, red wine bearing an appellation designation must be made with a prescribed cocktail of varietals. The percentage of each is something the winemaker can decide from year to year. Each may be vinified and martured the same way, or differenlty (some in barrels, some in stainless steel, for example). Each combination of varietals, site-specific fruit and variously-matured wine is considered a separate cuvee.
Wine 2 – Terres de Causses “Baies Pourpre” Vin de France.
Figure skating competitions feature both compulsory figures and freestyle segments, intended to showcase the sport’s two sides: precision execution of standard technique and creative self-expression. If Piaugier Sablet, made to conform to appellation rules, is, by analogy, the former then this is the latter — a freestyle wine. It presents one of the most unusual blends of varietals I’ve ever seen: merlot, pinot noir, touriga nacional a Port grape), petit verdot and 17% unnamed. There is no appellation in the world that authorizes a combination of grapes like this. The property is in the French Southwest – sort of ground zero for small, quirky operations. With such a diversity of fruit to work with, any number of cuvees would be possible. This is the one the winemaker decided on.
Wine 3. Jaulin-Plaisantin Chinon “Les Hauts et Les Bas”
So-named because this cuvee is made with fruit from the property’s higher and lower altitude plots: the plateau of Cravant (“les hauts”) and the banks of the Vienne river (“les bas”). As the principals describe it, the river bank gravels give fruit and roundness while the flinty clay from the plateau brings minerality and tension. Part of the blend is aged in a concrete tank to retain a vibrant fruit character while the rest is raised in older oak barrels. The sibling lots are blended together in tank after one year and aged for another 3 to 6 months.
Often, a winemaker will make separate cuvees from his younger and older vines – since these can be very different. The point is that in the mind of a winemaker any difference in either raw materials (site; vine age; varietal) or how the fruit has been processed (free-run juice; press wine; aging medium) can became the basis for a cuvee. In this sense, the individual lots of wine function as ingredients. The cuvee that results is the finished dish.
At this point, you might well ask if there is any wine at all that doesn’t qualify as a cuvee – and you would be asking a very good question indeed. It’s fair to say that any wine that has come about as the result of an artful arrangement of difference constitutes a cuvee – and what distinguishes these various lots can be almost anything. It’s as simple and as complex as that.
So how do you know when the wine in your glass is a cuvee? While there’s no requirement to reveal this information, you can often assume that this is the case when
(a) appellation rules require multiple varietals but don’t specify a particular recipe;
(b) you actually see the word on the label (Cuvee Prestige or Cuvee Tradition, for example);
(c) you see a fantasy name, one given by the winemaker or estate which is not part of its legal designation. For example, we would parse one of the above wines as follows:
Jaulin-Plaisantin — the property name (required)
Chinon – The appellation (required)
Les Hauts et Les Bas – fantasy name used to distinguish this cuvee from others at the same property (not required).
The concept of cuvee is one every wine drinker should be familiar with. Adding the word to your vocabularly will communicate instantly to a sommelier or retailer that you’re a consumer to be reckoned with.
Reach Stephen Meuse at firstname.lastname@example.org