Sunday, April 25, 2010

It's the skins, dammit

I was pondering about which grape varieties I enjoy most, and a certain theme emerged. It wasn't a typical connection like region or country of origin, though. I realized most of the wines I really enjoy come from thin, or at least thinner, skinned grapes. Based on the sort of information a good wine book or even a Wikipedia article can offer, some common thin and thick skinned grapes are as follows:

Thin Skin - Pinot Noir (pictured top left), Nebbiolo, Grenache, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Sangiovese

Thick Skin - Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (pictured lower left), Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, Mourvedre, Tempranillo

If I had to choose several varieties to take to a desert island, I'd probably choose Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Franc and Mourvedre. Mourvedre I like for its funky, rough character, but the other three I like for their aromatics, transparency, and grace. So, is a thin skin part of what makes a grape capable of expressing its terroir and achieving elegance?

Certainly a thin skin does not imply a wine will be spineless. Nebbiolo is both incredibly acidic and tannic, for example. But it does seem to me that these thin skinned wines are less about fleshy extract and mouth coating body than the Syrahs and Cabernets of the world. They seem to be more transparent if not ethereal, although they also seem to be difficult varieties that struggle to find that sweet spot. Too ripe, and their frame can't support the fat. Not ripe enough, and they're dilute. Pinot Noir is the classic example of a grape that requires a very specific environment to achieve greatness.

On the other hand, sturdy grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah can be expressive of their terroir and vintage. But more often than not their power, not their expressiveness, is optimized. Even in their more reserved forms, though, it seems these grapes aren't quite as aromatic.

Is it the skin to juice ratio and the sorts of phenolics that thin skinned grapes produce? Or is it the treatment their fickle nature necessitates? Either way, it's these thin skinned grapes that most often surprise and amaze me in a glass.


Tim said...

That's interesting- my 3 favorite varieties by far are Cabernet, PS, and Syrah. And all of them are on the thick skin list.

Not sure if you go through the comments often but I was wondering- what are some of the best books on wine that you would recommend? I've really enjoyed your blog as well as your comments on wine.woot and CT so I thought you might be a good person to ask.


CabFrancoPhile said...


Find anything written by RPM and SonomaBouliste (aka Peter Wellington) over on Woot. They are massively valuable references.

As far as books, I've read: The Science of Wine, Adventures on the Wine Route, Napa: An American Eden, The Far Side of Eden, A Hedonist in the Cellar, The Wine Trials, The Wines and Vines of Europe, The Billionaire's Vinegar, bits and pieces of the World Atlas of Wine. The last one is probably best as a general reference--maybe it's available at your library. The others are more specific, but generally good reads.