Risk and Reward: Grapes out of their Comfort Zone and into New Terroirs
Wine’s mapamundi used to be simple… well, not really but at least more consistent: You’d get your Albarino from Rias Baixas, your Riesling from Germany or Alsace and your Malbec from Argentina (or Cahors, if you are an Old World purist). And while it’s comforting to think that some terroirs offer the ultimate golden spot for certain varieties, if winemakers don’t risk it and explore new wine regions or innovative ways to use established ones, we’ll never know where else a variety can thrive.
It’s not as if this is the first time in history in which grapes have been purposely taken from one place to another, but while ancient Romans and centuries later, Spaniards, did so to ensure a reliable supply of wine wherever they conquered, and 19th century winemakers rushed with what was left of their crops to remote regions to flee phylloxera, this time the risk is calculated -but a risk nonetheless- and technology, time and resources are in favour, not against winemakers that have managed to take grapes historically associated to certain regions, and plant them in new terroirs.
Risk and Reward?
In the last few decades, some pioneers have proven that this can bring wonderful results. Think of producer Tenuta San Guido in Toscana and its legendary Sassicaia, a Bordeaux style blend that broke all rules in the late sixties by literally resorting to forbidden fruits -at least according to the local law- and becoming the first example of what we now know as Super Tuscans. Another success story from decades past was born in 1970: Mas La Plana, the pride of Bodegas Torres’ and the exquisite product of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes introduced into the Spanish region of Penedés by a young and daring Miguel Torres.
As mentioned by the man himself last year at a vertical tasting of Mas La Plana at Torres’ visitor centre in Penedés, the idea wasn’t unanimously praised when he first planted the very foreign Cab Sauv on his father’s vineyard (Torres senior had strong reservations about this project), but after the first vintage won the Paris Wine Olympics in 1979, even the skeptical clapped.
However, not all ventures end up in gold medals. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Australian winemakers saw the potential of Albarino, a grape most associated with the Spanish region of Rias Baixas. When French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot discovered in 2008 that the vines in the country where in fact Savagnin Blanc -a.k.a. Traminer, not to be confused with Sauvignon Blanc- the finding disheartened many producers.
The learning however, was valuable. In the report by Wine Australia Vine identification – knowing what you have (2010) the case is used as an argument on the importance of correct identification. While the report states that “Savagnin Blanc has fortunately shown to be a versatile variety that has had good wine reviews”, it also points out that “it is not the Spanish variety people had anticipated and the mistake has been a significant cost to the industry and to individuals.”
In 2014, renown wine writer Jancis Robinson touched base with Australian wine producers to see how they’ve been coping with the discovery. There were mixed feelings and while some decided to replant, some changed their labels to adapt to the revealed facts with varying degrees of success.
Grapes Out for Adventure
Nowadays, with modern DNA testing, episodes like the aforementioned one are just cautionary tales yet very unlikely to happen. As technology makes if not prediction, assessment of potential, more viable, more and more experimental attempts of taking grapes out of their comfort zone will result in success.
So, here are five grapes that have been historically linked to one or a few very specific regions and two off the beaten track recommendations for each. Get both, taste them together and no matter which one is your favourite, celebrate the expanding of horizons!
While the Rhone Valley in France and Australia’s Barossa Valley are known as the top spots for Syrah, and California and Chile as the surprisingly good dark horses in the race, you might not think about New Zealand for a bottle of this variety. Syrah gathers a thin 1.5% of the total production of the country (figures from New Zealand Wine, 2015) and it represents barely 0.5% of the total exports. However, this is likely to change as the resulting bottles are receiving critical acclaim and showing a character that combines the new world openness and instant gratification, and French finesse.
Another unexpected land for Syrah is Portugal. In a country known for Port and for still wines which gather numerous indigenous grapes, and with a long tradition of blending, Syrah varietals are still a rarity, however, they offer a rich, spicy and very fairly priced rendition of the grape. Portuguese Syrah was praised at the 2012 Syrah du Monde, in which 4 bottles from the region of Antelejo received medals -2 gold and 2 silver-.
Trinity Hill Hawke’s Bay Syrah
Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Available at Mitchell and Son – €22
Both black and white pepper flow along ripe blackberries in this demured Syrah that soon opens up and shows nutmeg and juicy black cherries. With moderate tannins and a mild 13% ABV, it’s not as restrained as a Rhone, nor as in your face as a Shiraz.
Smart Dog Syrah
Available at O’Briens Wine – €14.95
Grab it for its cool label, grab it again for its juicy and palate pleasing character. This Syrah is smooth and fruity, with cranberries, blackberries and cherry jam. On the palate, a hint of chocolate and sweet spices complement the fruit, served with a medium portion of tannins and a balanced mouthfeel at 13.5% ABV.
Rias Baixas’ flagship grape is mostly associated with the Spanish region, however, as the thirst for its acidic and fruity charm grows globally, the variety it’s ripe for an expansion. While Aussie winemakers might have struggled with their plantings and the buzz for their Albarinos dissipated, the grape doesn’t need to go that far to offer a tasty twist. Portuguese call it Alvarinho and it has a solid history of success as one important variety in zesty vinho verde.
In the early nineties, some plantings of Albarino dared to travel further and quietly found its way into California, where the aromatic grape tends to show lower acidity and minerality compared to its cousins in the Old World, but offers a very pleasant focus in richness and a more tropical perfume. Marimar Estate, in Sonoma County, is a winery owned by the Torres family and one of the houses that produce Albarino wines in the region.
Muros Antiguos Contacto Alvarinho
Vinho Verde, Portugal
Available at the Celtic Whiskey Shop – €17.99
Dry and sharp, its power grows thanks to a short skin maceration and a 4 month holiday resting on its fine lees. Vineyards planted on stony soils alongside a river contribute to its minerality and mouth-watering acidity. Citrus fruits and the delicate bitterness of lime zest dominate, with a herbal note on the background.
Marimar Estate Albarino
Russian River, California
Available via Amazon.co.uk (UK & NI) – €31.59 (£26.99)
Marimar Estate is owned by Marimar Torres, part of the prestigious Torres family in Spain. The vineyards are organic and the wine is what you’d expect of an Albarino: fresh, with a vibrant acidity and a favourful combination of citrus, stone fruit, beachy minerality and white flowers.
Once upon a time there were two options: Germany or Alsace. Now two neighbours in the other side of the world are offering alternatives while proving that while this capricious grape is not going to be next Chardonnay anytime soon, it is more than a two songs diva. These two neighbours are Australia and New Zealand.
In Oz, Tasmanian Riesling has distinguished itself for its elegance and ageing potential, and from the cool climate and prestigious region of Adelaide Hills, to the hot Barossa Valley, the grape has also found terroirs it likes to express, not just in powerful dry Rieslings, but in beautiful dessert wines as well.
In New Zealand, Riesling production accounts for 4.5% of the total volume or a meager 1% of the wine (0.1% of exports) and it’s mostly planted on the southern island where cool nights and a long dry autumn plays in favour of winemakers. The range of options goes from the bone-dry to the syrupy sweet and the style is closer to the German or Alsatian than to its Aussie counterparts.
Polish Hill Riesling 2013
Clare Valley, Australia
Available at Le Caveau (Kilkenny) – €33.22 (on offer from €37.75)
One of the most highly regarded producers of Riesling Down Under is to thank for this spirited and vigorous bottle of firm dryness and enchanting floral allure. Steel stars in the minerality department and lime leads as the main fruit character.
Forest Estate The Doctors’ Riesling
Marlborough, New Zealand
Available at The Corkscrew – €19.95
The Doctors’ range focuses on innovation, new grape varieties and alternative winemaking. This Riesling is a rarity in Sauv Blanc land: with a mild acidity and just 9% ABV, it feels light and refreshing. Aromas of green apple, citrus and white peach are complemented in the palate by mouth-watering kiwi (wink wink).
Argentina and Cahors (Southwest France) have a New World cop, Old World cop dynamic that has remained relatively unchallenged when it comes to Malbec supremacy. However, Chile is upping its Malbec game and while it traditionally kept it as part of Bordeaux style blends, the quality (and value) of Chilean Malbec nowadays is a force not to be overlooked.
Last year it actually made headlines when La Moneda Reserva Malbec from Central Valley in Chile, a supermarket wine under €6 won best in its category at the prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) and while the country might be better known for its Cab Sauvs, Merlots and Carmeneres, Malbec has definitely shown big potential.
Other emerging South American wine countries are slowly waking up to Malbec; Bolivia took Platinum last year at the Decanter World Wine Awards with a Tannat Malbec blend, and Brazil and Uruguay are also producing a small amount of Malbec, although they haven’t yet reached a level that allows them to compete with Mendoza in Gaucho country. But if you really want to see Malbec pushed out of its comfort zone, let’s go to Italy, where the grape is still a quirk grown by a whim or by accident. It’s in the north of this country, around the Veneto region, where the grape is reminded of the Andean climate it loves so much.
Chicken Run Malbec
Casablanca Valley, Chile
Available at O’Briens Wine – €13.95
This Malbec comes from a land conquered by global varieties and its made with organic grapes from Emiliana’s vineyards. You would guess its from across the Andes as it is closer to the Argentinian brightness than to Cahors’ tall and dark handsomeness. Blackberries, plum compote and vanilla blend in with smooth tannins and a well integrated 14% ABV.
Loredan Gasparini Malbec Collio
Available at Karrig Wines (Cork) – €18.30
Count Loredan Gasparini wanted to make Bordeaux style wines in the 50’s and introduced the needed varieties to his vineyard. To his surprise, what he thought to be Petit Verdot, turned out to be Malbec. The accident had a happy ending, as the varietal they make nowadays is intense, rich, packed with ripe dark fruit and cherries and spice. Think Mendoza meets Valpolicella and you’ll get the point.
This beautiful aromatic grape is commonly seen traveling with a French or German passport, however its spicy wonders might have originated in Italy, specifically from the town of Tramin (“Gewürz” is the German word for spicy so do the math). Gewurztraminer or Traminer aromatico as it’s known in parts of Italy, is produced in small quantities in the country, where it can become a generous and delicate white with a floral nose and low acidity.
In the New World, Gewurz is also thriving, with plantings many winemaking countries including Chile, New Zealand, Australia and California. In Chile, dry and off-dry bottles of very good quality can be found, specially from the country’s southern -and quite cold- regions, a land closer to Patagonia than to Chilean best-selling spots and with loads yet to discover.
Cantina Tramin Gewurtztraminer 2013
Alto Adige, Italy
Available at the Celtic Whiskey Shop – €18.99
An explosion of flavours, coming from a calcareous and gravely soil that seems to have been made for Gewurz to thrive. Low in acidity and with a medium body, it’s all about flowers and exotic fruit with this one. Honeysuckle, rose and pollen, combined with white peaches and candied pineapple create a beautiful yet love it or hate it type of palate.
Santa Digna Gewurztraminer
Central Valley, Chile
Available at Bradley’s Off Licence (Cork) – €11.99
Not only this Chilean Gewurztraminer offers a value never found across the Atlantic, it is a lovely introduction to the variety, made by a winery under the Torres family’s innovative leadership. It shows a very typical display of lychee and rose, with a plump body and low acidity. More fruit than flower, it’s friendly and balanced.
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.
[TT-FOURBLOCK ID=”77707, 117173, 77705, 113684″]