If winemakers were as theatrical as Colin Clive’s portrayal of Dr. Frankenstein in the classic horror film of 1931, they’d have more than one reason to recite his famous lines: “Look! It’s moving. It’s alive. It’s alive… IT’S ALIVE!” Well, probably not the “it’s moving” bit as it’s plants what they’re bringing back from the dead, but surely they’d yell an equally swashbuckling line as wines from varieties long gone, even thought extinct, are returning to menus and shelves thanks to their determination and new technologies.
It is worth remembering that in the mid 19th century, the phylloxera virus ravaged Europe’s vineyards reducing not just the quantity but striking a drastic blow to biodiversity. Many plots were replanted with popular varieties, specially those used in Bordeaux such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc, and Burgundy (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay).
The fact that many new world countries chose to focus on these commercially sensible grapes also contributed to their rise to global stardom, but too much of a good thing always has a downside.
Three Reasons Why Reviving Old Varieties Makes Sense
There are several reasons that make it a worthy endeavour to bring back nearly extinct varieties: commercially, finding something different and unique is a great way to have an edge and, in an era in which for better or worse, everyone is on a race to find the next big thing, sometimes the best place to look is back.
But there’s also a more long term argument for going through all this hassle. With climate change putting winemakers under pressure, finding varieties that can adapt is crucial for the future of fine wine.
As you read, wine’s big players are planting their future, Torres Wines for example, has an experimental winery in the Penedés region that focuses on revived ancestral varieties. Last year it made headlines when they announced they’ve brought back Moneu and Gonfaus, two red grapes from the Catalonian region.
The third reason has more to do with the desire of winemakers to reconnect to their terroirs and to return to their roots and heritage. Bringing back varieties that were replaced but which are the right fit for a soil and climate offers both a way to create a more authentic product with personality, and also, thanks to the modern technology and advancements, it allows them to make wines their ancestors would have only dreamed to craft.
Carmenére’s Surprising New Beginning
Nowadays wine lovers will associate Carmenére with Chile. Even though Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted variety in the country, Carmenére’s big reveal and the subsequent efforts to capitalise on the finding by winemakers, have made it one of the most well known examples of a revived grape.
When Carmenére arrived into Chile from Bordeaux it was thought to be Merlot. For decades this remained unchallenged, especially after the variety was almost completely wiped out from France’s vineyards. It was not until 1994 that the truth was discovered by Jean-Michel Boursiquot, a French ampelographer (the part of botany related to the identification and classification of grapevines) who realised the plants were not really Merlot and was able to track what they really were.
About two decades later, Carmenére is alive and well, and while other countries have ventured into planting a few vines, it’s still known as a distinctively Chilean variety.
Good Old Godello
Another example, now in a less advanced stage of recovery but getting there quickly, is Godello, a white variety that had virtually disappeared a few decades ago and which has been replanted in the northwest of Spain, where it has shown great promise.
If you like Albariño wines from Rías Baixas (which by the way is also in Galicia), wines made from Godello are going to please you. Some regions to keep an eye on are Monterrei, Ribeira Sacras and Valdeorras. In this one, the wines of Bodegas Rafael Palacios, a pioneer in bringing the variety back, are some of the more complex and interesting.
While it’s still far from being the next Pinot Grigio (and most likely, it won’t go in that direction) you can find wines from Godello with relative ease. In fact this year, a Godello from Aldi was launched, and if you’re a grape and you have an Aldi wine, you can rest assure you hit the mainstream palate.
Italy’s Rediscovered Heritage
While some Italian varieties need only to be saved from their ubiquity, others faced oblivion until very recently. One of the regions where most of the experimentation is taken place is Sicily, a land which is enjoying a resurgence itself, and which has become a reference point for wines from volcanic soils.
With numerous indigenous varieties being replanted and reimagined, Grillo is a good example. Originally used for the production of Marsala wines, Grillo was eventually replaced and forgotten. In the nineties, prestigious Marsala producer Marco de Bartoli decided to give it a makeover and bottled a still white wine from the variety.
Citrusy, fresh and able to retain the mineral notes that wine lovers enjoy in Sicily’s terroir, Grillo is now one of the most popular white wines from the island.
Another Italian that has benefited from winemaker’s efforts is Pecorino. Yup, just like the tasty sheep cheese of the same name (the Italian for sheep is pecora and as the story goes, sheep like to eat these grapes).
Pecorino comes from eastern Italy, and thrives in regions such as Marche and Abruzzo. In 2001, the town of Offida was given DOC status and DOCG as recently as in 2011, becoming the first DOCG that allows Pecorino whites, which normally can be found as IGT.
According to Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine, plantings of the variety went from 87 hectares to 1,110 between 2000 and 2010, that’s more than twelve times more land. Easy to drink and ideal as an aperitivo, Pecorino is one to please drinkers of Sauvignon Blanc.
Minius Godello 2015
€17.99 – Available at Drink Store Manor Street; Vintry Rathgar; Mortons; Sweeneys Wines, Bradley’s Cork, 1601 Kinsale, World Wide Wines in Waterford, Wine Centre Kilkenny
This generous white comes from the Galician region of Monterrei, top spot for the variety and one of the regions pioneering its comeback. Lemony and with a medium body, it offers a juicy sip that brings green apples, fresh nectarines and a mineral note, more seawater than metal.
If you like Vinho Verdes, Albarinos or crisp Sauvignon Blancs, give Godello a chance!
Viu Manent El Incidente Carmenére 2012
€49 – Available at Grape & Grain Leopardstown; Drink Store Manor Street; Shields, Malahide
A sumptuous and complex example of Carmenére reaching its potential. The icon wine from a premium producer in the Colchagua Valley, regarded as one of Chile’s most promising terroirs, it is deep and grabs you with tannins as strong and pleasant as a big hug.
Aromas of ripe blackberries and cooked red cherries are combined with licorice and cocoa nibs and tobacco. A subtle herbal character complements it. It’s well rounded, elegant and intense.
€14.95 (on offer from €18.95) – Available at O’Briens Wine
A rewarding taste of one of Italy’s most unique regions, Sicily.
Grillo shows why it was well worth a revival in this sharp and mouthwatering white.
Floral and perfumed yet dry as a desert, the orange blossom and ripe lemon nose leads to a surprising encounter with a mouth-watering acidity and a mineral palate, think the metallic sharpness of biting a stainless steel spoon dipped in limoncello.
A wine for those who want more out of their whites.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.