How is your contemporary wine grape IQ? Are you up on the latest “alternative” varieties? Should you even care?
If a grape makes perfectly delicious wine, I would think yes to the last question. But for me, personally, I think a wine made from an alternative grape becomes significant the moment I have a perfectly matched dish for it. I like reasons for my wines.
And besides, the way I look at it: forty years ago Chardonnay wasn’t on anybody’s lexicon (most people drank “Chablis,” “Burgundy” and “Vin Rosé” in those days), Merlot was still an experimental grape in California, and Zinfandel was always red, not pink. In fact, forty years ago grapes like Lambrusco and Chenin Blanc – which we can barely give away these days – were making some of our best selling wines.
So who is to say, twenty or thirty years from now, that grapes like Falanghina, Mencia, or even (once again) Lambrusco and Chenin Blanc won’t be among our five or ten top sellers?
When Jancis Robinson came out with her Guide to Wine Grapes in 1996, she listed some 800 different names of grapes (many of them aliases for grapes known by multiple names, depending upon the wine regions). Somewhere among those names may be your next favorite wine.
But you have to start somewhere. Here are just six grapes that you may not have heard of, or (if you did) have not gotten around to experiencing personally; but which I have found to be of special culinary value, thus worthy of your attention:
THREE MUST-DISCOVER WHITES
Online research tells us that Verdejo – which makes one of the two finest white wines of Spain (along with the better known Albariño) – as a grape languished in obscurity for hundreds of years in the Rueda region before being recently “rediscovered.” Well, I bet it was never “obscure” in Rueda – if it was lovingly planted for centuries, people in Rueda most definitely appreciated the grape even if the rest of the world didn’t give a damn. But thank goodness, you can now find a perfectly delicious example of the Verdejo grape bottled and sold for less than $15 across the U.S. under the Naia label. Look for not just airy fresh, mineral and citrusy fragrances and a mesmerizingly light, zesty, flowing flavor, but also near perfect matches for foods like seviche, adobo, pico de gallo laden chicken tacos or rice burritos, or just a simple salad dolled up with your favorite variations of microgreens, herbed croutons and balsamic vinaigrette.
If your taste is even finer, look for the higher priced – but deeper, more complex – Naia “Viña Sila Naiades” ($22-$28), which is simply gorgeous: silken smooth yet exhilaratingly crisp, with honeyed, lemon-lime Verdejo perfumes.
It was standing in the bone chilling cellars of Feudi San Gregorio – some ten years ago in Italy’s Campania region – where I first sipped the singularly unique qualities of the Falanghina grape. Unlike Greco di Tufo, the more famous white wine grape of Campania, Falanghina is relatively lighter, shyer, more delicate – the promising adolescent next to the more well defined woman. But oh, how Falanghina haunts: even now, I can still feel the way its mix of licorice and sweet, caramelized pear-like aromas, with almost jarringly unique orange peel and toasted almond undertones, seemed to almost kick me out of my shoes; and the way the grape’s sleek, minerally, flowing flavor brought me right back down to earth. Few wines of any sort bring so much clarity and distinction to the glass. But for all it possesses, can Falanghina ever become a major commercial grape? Ah, if only pure quality, and the quality of purity, were indeed the determining factors.
Italy is a happy hunting ground for lovers of indigenous grapes of ancient lineage. Umbria’s Grechetto is of Greek origin; and if there is any one Italian white wine grape that still qualifies for adjectives like “obscure” and “underrated,” Grechetto is it. First things first: Grechetto is not “Chardonnay,” nor “Verdejo” or “Falanghina” – its wines are neither fat nor skinny, not heavy yet not light on the palate, neither overripe or underripe. It is, however, cool, crisp, dry, and clear; qualities that lift the white peach, pear, wildflower and fennel-like flavors of the grape like a feather in the wind. There is a quiet, almost Asian sense of harmony and restraint in the wine’s balance. This is, in fact, a wine that most American wine critics will never “get”; enslaved, as they are, by the idea that big is better, and loud carries the big stick – which it most certainly never does in the context of the lighter, more refreshing foods (think sushi and sashimi, a fresh leek or fennel soup, wood roasted chicken or whole fish baked in a fresh vegetable nage) many of us are eating today.
On the technical side, Grechetto is one of the key white wine grapes of Umbria (utilized in Orvieto) and Tuscany (used in Vin Santo), but the single best varietal bottling is made by Riccardo Cotarella under his Falesco label, although there is one by Sportoletti that is just as moving. Antinori also uses Grechetto in small portions in their highly acclaimed “Cervaro della Sala,” utilizing the grape’s dense, snappy, floral notes to anchor the predominantly fatter, barrel fermented qualities of the Chardonnay grape.
THREE MUST-EXPERIENCE REDS
Of all the red wine grapes I’ve worked with over the years, not one has compiled as wide, and inexplicable, a variance between pure appeal insofar as taste vs. pure perplexity insofar as the name as the Blaufränkisch. In Austria, where its wine is bottled as Blaufränkisch, the grape makes vividly colored reds of often sturdy tannin, always energetic acidity, and perfumes and flavors of cassis-like concentration and pervasive clove and/or pepperminty spices. But most of what we see in the U.S. made from this grape comes from Eastern Washington; where, for all their wisdom, vintners choose to bottle Blaufränkisch by its German nonclematures, Lemberger or Limberger. But once most wine aficionados get past the name, they tend to find Yakima and Columbia Valley grown wines made from this grape to be as softly inviting, sprightly and spicy as, say, any good Pinot Noir; with sweet berry qualities as compelling as, say, typical California Zinfandels.
In fact, think of a well made Blaufränkisch/Lemberger/Limberger as being as eminently matchable with a wide range of foods – from fish to red or white meats – as any good Pinot Noir; yet as eminently deep and satisfying a draught as most good Zinfandels. So what’s keeping this grape from taking over the wine world as we know it in popularity? Well, maybe it needs a new name, like “Cabernet Sauvignon” or “Merlot.” Whoops, already taken. So I guess the only thing that remains is time… time for most everyday wine lovers to begin trusting their own instincts when they taste a delicious wine, and to forget whatever else they may hear.
So you love Cabernet Sauvignon, or maybe a big, rambunctious Syrah and Petite Sirah? Then there is every reason to expect that you’d love Sangrantino from Italy’s Umbria region. Sagrantino di Montefalco is actually an Italian DOCG – awarded the country’s highest quality classification in 1993 – but this tiny, black skinned grape remains more of a peculiarity than a common predilection, appreciated by relatively few enthusiasts outside its place of origin. Yet lovers of thick, bulging, muscular reds could make a fetish out of this wine, with its gooey rich aroma evincing black licorice and berries, and earth-toned nuances that transition from truffle to chocolate. On the palate, it knocks you around with a fistful of flavors; luscious fruit strapped down by brawny tannin, finishing with smoky, roasted coffee bean-like intensities. Of the paltry few brands of Sagrantino seen in the U.S. your best bet is probably Galli & Broccatelli’s, imported by Leonardo LoCascio’s Winebow.
Is Charbono a once-and-future “king” of red wine grapes? Of the dozen or so California wineries that still work with it, Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm has recently had the most interesting thing to say about it:
Charbono reminds me of The Wild Child, a feral creature brought back to civilization, dressed in proper clothing and paraded around by Victorian scientists. One is always aware of the fact that this grape is somehow quite different.
In the late 1960s Roy Andries de Groot wrote a groundbreaking piece on California wine for Esquire, proclaiming a circa-1940s Inglenook Charbono to be the greatest single California wine ever made. But by the late 1970s – a point in time during which thousands of new acres of grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were going into the ground each year – plantings of Charbono in California dwindled to barely a hundred acres. And it’s not like there’s anything similar from Europe to fall back on. The origin of Charbono shrouded in innuendo for years, journalists no less authoritative than Jancis Robinson have misidentified it as a relative of Italy’s Dolcetto and Argentina’s Bonarda. But the vine scientists at UC Davis say no: their 1999 DNA studies conclusively established Charbono as being the same as the equally obscure and unappreciated Corbeau (also called Charbonneau) from France’s Savoie region, thus unrelated to anything grown in Italy.
So what is the big deal? Despite its fading fortunes – only about eighty acres of (now) ancient vines remain planted in California – Charbono makes a red of near immortal strength. Dense, sinewy flavors of sun dried berries and rose petal potpourri, coupled with above average (for red wine) acidity and generous but dependably rounded tannins, have given bottlings of Charbono an historic penchant for long and graceful bottle maturation, rivaling the reds of France’s Bordeaux and Bandol. Need proof? Bern’s Steak House in Tampa still stocks vintages of Inglenook Charbono going back to the 1960s and 1970s that are still immensely satisfying, brimming with the concentrated yet balanced fruit qualities that bowled over de Groot some forty years ago. If the restaurant where I served as sommelier in the late 1970s had survived and prospered half as well as Bern’s, I would have stockpiled some back vintages, too.
But will Charbono survive the slings and arrows of today’s commercial demands? Not if winemakers like Grahm and Turley’s Ehren Jordan have a say in it. Newer producers like On ThEdge have recently thrown down the gauntlet, and Summers and Pacific Star still stubbornly turn out a thousand or so cases of it a year. If you find a bottle, I suggest you buy it and savor the rarity of its character: the way the grape naturally wants to meld intense fruit extract into rounded tannin and elevated acidity, resulting in a timeless sense of harmony.