Beyond the handful of varieties used to make standardised New World wines that tend towards homogeneity is a seemingly inexhaustible diversity of outre grapes, writes JOHN WILSON
The Californians claim to be the first to name the grape variety on a bottle of wine. There are a few European regions, such as Alsace, that might beg to differ, but these are isolated examples.
The rest of the European wine world made it impossible for most new wine drinkers to understand what they were buying without researching in the few books that were available. We should be deeply grateful to those who took this seemingly simple but revolutionary step that changed the world of wine. However, it has brought about a certain homogeneity in the wines we are offered.
Every New World country now produces a standard range based on two white grape varieties and two reds. Step forward sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Tacked on to these, each has one or two extras. Australia and Argentina probably have the widest range, Australia with shiraz, semillon and riesling, Argentina with malbec, bonarda, tempranillo and torrontés. Chile offers carménère, South Africa pinotage, New Zealand pinot noir, all with varying degrees of success.
But beyond these you really need to go to Europe to find anything really different. Italy and France seem to have an inexhaustible supply, with a few new varieties lurking in every region you visit. Portugal has avoided the temptations of cabernet/chardonnay completely. Eastern and central Europe, as well as Greece, remain largely undiscovered in this market but have no shortage of outré grape varieties for anyone willing to experiment.
Are we missing out? In many cases, there is a very good reason why grape varieties remain unheralded: they just aren’t very interesting. However, a great many can make easy-drinking wine – and that, after all, is what we drink most of the time. Most don’t taste too way-out either, just slightly different fruit flavours and varying levels of tannin, acidity and alcohol. Ten years ago few would have heard of grüner veltliner and blaufränkisch from Austria, or godello and bobal from Spain. Yet today they are responsible for some of the most exciting wines in their respective countries.
You don’t have to buy expensive wines to find something unusual either. It may seem that the lower-priced end of the wine market offers only the well-known varieties but scanning the shelves of my local Tesco I came across 15 wines made from lesser-known grapes, all less than €15 and quite a few less than €10 (for the moment at least).
So if you are tiring of a diet of Marlborough sauvignon and Chilean cabernet, why not experiment next time you buy a bottle of wine? You should be pleasantly surprised. Some bottles will not have a grape variety but these days a large number of producers will give information on the back label.
This week we taste four wines from off the beaten track. Georgia can claim to be the true cradle of wine. It is believed wine was made there 8,000 years ago. The Georgian wine industry has had a rollercoaster ride for the past decade or two. Its wines were highly regarded in the old Soviet Union and still are in modern Russia, so a large percentage of the wines was sold there. The wines suffered firstly under Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol drive, however, and then from the ongoing political tensions between the two countries.
There are times when it seems every part of France has its local specialities. On holiday in the Auvergne a few years back I took a little time out to visit a few local wineries. In Gaillac, Domaine Plageoles has been a major rejuvenating force, producing wines using almost entirely local grape varieties, many of which were in danger of extinction. Robert Plageoles’s father Bernard, who worked as a researcher on grape varieties, founded the estate in the early 1980s.
I bought a mixed case of wines that included some real finds, such as a sparkling mauzac and a vin de voile, a sort of sherry-style wine, and enjoyed them over the holiday. More recently, Terroirs in Donnybrook has started to bring in a few of the wines.
Further west, the wines of the Fronton are made from the local negrette grape, often blended with other varieties, producing vibrant, lightly fruity wines, often with a peppery touch.
Moving over to Spain, the mencia grape, unheard of a decade ago, has become very highly regarded more recently. Basic wines, from vines grown on the fertile valley floors, tend to be fragrant, light and fruity. However, if grown on schist soils on the slopes they can achieve real complexity and depth. These have savoury, dark-fruit flavours. I enjoy them unless they have been too heavily oaked.