You Get Thirsty on a Deserted Island

(Originally published December 2007)

A perennially fun game for wine geeks to play goes like this. Pick one white wine grape and one red wine grape that you would have to drink for the rest of your life. Just wines made from these two grapes. It’s fun for the whole family!

Obviously, one has to like the wines made from the chosen grapes. A lifetime can be a long time. That’s why we drink wine, to make it all go away. Over the long haul, another key attribute to consider is the versatility of the grapes, can they express themselves in a variety of ways? Fuller or lighter? Sweeter or drier? Can they reflect a variety of places of origin well, expanding the range of scents and flavors enjoyed from but two grapes? And, most importantly, do hot chicks dig them?

Ahh, Hanes digresses. So, without further ado, here are Hanes’s choices and why. Note that he first played this “thought experiment” game with wine friends a decade ago and his answers then in no way resemble those found here. Life is nothing if it is not about change. And, who knows, maybe the answers will change once more ten years hence? If his liver holds out that long.

Both choices are equally difficult, white and red. The runners up in both categories could prove equally as pleasing and versatile. But no one remembers who lost the World Series in 1932, just who won, so screw ’em. For white wine grapes, the answer has to be Riesling. So distinct and yet so transparent at the same time! How do they do it? Riesling not only survives but thrives the world over, capable of adapting to a variety of terroirs while yet hewing to its innate character. The tell-tale notes of petrol or oil can be found in German Rieslings, Australian Rieslings and New York State Rieslings. Albeit with greater or lesser intensity, let’s not get too crazy. Even in warmer climates it often manages to provide above average acidity to lend it freshness and verve

Beyond its basic adaptability, Riesling also lends itself incredibly well to a plethora of viticultural approaches and vinification styles and techniques. Regardless of the level of ripeness, the final wines can be vinified to be bone dry or ultra sweet dessert quality wines, without losing its essential nature as Riesling. Heck, regardless of red, white or amber color, Riesling may be the most versatile grape known. Like ever! Its range from dry to sweet makes it a wonderful wine with a full menu of dishes, as does its ability to express itself clearly at either lighter or heavier weights.

Riesling can also capture the more subtle differences among vineyards neighboring one another or just around the bend by the old oak tree. You can stand in one vineyard and drink a glass of wine from it and literally see another vineyard, walk there, have a glass of wine from that vineyard and it will taste dramatically different. That’s no lie, folks. Try it yourself. Just watch out for men in lederhosen with shotguns and dogs.

A key differentiator for Riesling is that it also ages fantastically, developing tertiary aromas and flavors for decades. You can have a Riesling of 40 years age and it will be alive and kicking and furnish flavors unlike any other aged white wine. Thus, Riesling is not only versatile in “horizontal” terms of similarly aged young wines from an assortment of places, the versatility continues with each passing “vertical” year.

If that isn’t enough, Riesling is often one of the more low alcohol wines on the market — so you can drink even more of it!

Sharing many of the attributes of Riesling, and a close second place finisher, comes Chenin Blanc. It can be very dry or sweet, ages beautifully, expresses a sense of place of origin and comes with crisp, invigorating acidity. Hanes could deal with a lifetime of quaffing Chenin Blanc wines. But, in the end, there can only be one.

Hanes’s choice among red wine grapes is likely to prove more debatable to wine geeks. Here, it’s gotta be Syrah (aka Shiraz in some places). This noble grape crosses the finish line first for a variety of reasons. It too possesses different sorts of versatility. Syrah can adapt to, gosh, just about anywhere. There’s very few places left which do not grow Syrah to some extent (a good and a bad thing). While in hotter climes Syrah loses a good deal of structure, when grown in cooler areas it maintains the acidity and tannin required to achieve both finesse and power. Syrah also tastes “like Syrah” at a variety of body weights, light, medium and full. This allows the consumer to decide which style is appropriate for the moment or meal and choose accordingly.

Syrah produces some of the most intriguing secondary and tertiary aromas and flavors around. Grilled meat, bacon, animal fur, tar, earth, flowers, garden herbs, citrus, you name it. The level of fruit ranges from brightly tart red fruits to thick, jammy black fruits, in some cases one voice in the chorus, in others the diva soloist. Syrah evolves steadily over the years, and while not as long-lived as some other noble grapes, beyond a doubt changes from the wine it was in its infancy. For a red wine grape, Syrah evinces a high degree of transparency to its place, its environment leaves an indelible mark on the final wine (or it should). With select Syrah based wines you just know from whence it came. Would that life always provided such security!

While hard to prove per se, Hanes also suspects that Syrah is able to better integrate excessive exposure to oak as it gains age. Even if it tastes like a vanilla ice cream and caramel swirl while young, the grape’s more rugged personality fights its way to the surface over the years. So, there’s hope for those oak and fruit bombs yet, just cross your fingers and wait. And wait.

While Syrah can be fruit-driven, the best examples tend towards the drier end of the spectrum. But, if sweet you want, Syrah can deliver. Although, note that Hanes only in the rarest of circumstances has seen a dessert quality wine made from Syrah (there is, however, plenty of “sparkling Shiraz”). Another bonus for Syrah, although not strictly part of this here game, is that Syrah can be blended with many other grapes to produce stellar results. If done well, it keeps the right proportion of its character while at the same time allowing freedom of expression to the other grapes in the blend. Riesling, well, Riesling is best left alone.

More learned imbibers of the vine’s fruit might aver that while Syrah absolutely has its merits, the true “alone on a deserted island” red wine grape is Pinot Noir. This grape is the noblest of the noble, the most nuanced and elegant, the most intellectually compelling and soul stirring. It’s hard to argue long and hard against Pinot Noir. But as Hanes has yet to have the long-expected “Burgundy conversion” which afflicts both the well-heeled middle-aged as well as fat, unshaven guys in movies, let’s leave it at this. The worst Syrah is always going to be better than the worst Pinot Noir. And there’s something to that.

In a very close third place, Hanes has to honor the Nebbiolo grape, which possesses so many of the positive attributes of Syrah and Pinot Noir, save perhaps its ability to travel across the globe and produce wines which stun in their beauty as those born in Piedmont, Italy. A lifetime of Nebbiolo from Piedmont would not be too shabby.

Looking back, the choice of Riesling and Syrah proves painfully obvious to any follower of The Hanes Wine Review since these two grapes make up like 75% of the tasting notes he scribbles. Why, it’s like this game is actually happening in real life! Zoinks!