Trying Something Different
The most thoughtful Christmas present I received this year was a copy of Wine Grapes: A complete guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavors, written by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz. The twelve hundred page tome got me thinking about the disparity between the number of grapes and wines available and the number most of us actually drink. While we currently list well over a hundred varieties (118 as of January 2013), about a third of our selection comprises of wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. And yet that said, we are finding an increasing number of fascinating and somewhat esoteric varieties.
Although it sounds obvious, one of our key jobs, if not one of the most important working in the wine business, is knowing what we sell in order to help people find what they like. With an ever-changing inventory of over three and a half thousand wines this entails the rather exciting, if not daunting task of tasting hundreds of wines every year.
It is this need to discover and try wines made in every far-flung region of the world which factors into the decision-making when choosing a bottle to take home for dinner. While we thoroughly enjoy most of what we taste, we rarely allow ourselves the opportunity to take the same wine home for a second time.
When it’s not part of one’s job description to taste as many wines as possible, it can often feel safest to fall back on old favorites, such as Cab, Zinfandel, or Sauvignon Blanc. Once in a while, though, it’s great to try something new. Even if you don’t find a new favorite, it might at least be a good conversation starter at your next dinner party.
The authors of Wine Grapes do the practical job of limiting themselves to writing about the 1,368 varieties used in production today, not the 10,000 or so total number of grapes varieties in existence. This is still more than comprehensive enough, even for a serious wine nerd like me, and I have really enjoyed pairing the book’s entries with a few of the great new varieties I recently tasted: Mauzac, Pugnitello, and Sauvignonasse.
We just received a trio of wines from Chateau Rives-Blancs, a small operation run by Jan and Caryl Panman in the appellation of Limoux tucked in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Apart from their two delightful whites, a Chardonnay – Chenin Blanc Blend and a 100% Chenin Blanc called Cuvee Dedicace, we also bought some of their Blanquettes de Limoux.
Blanquettes de Limoux
Blanquette de Limoux is apparently the world's oldest sparkling wine, and which from experience can, tasted blind, easily be mistaken for a good non-vintage champagne. According to French wine law, a Blanquettes de Limoux must be made from at least 90% Mauzac.
Wine Grapes has a concise, yet insightful, one sentence introduction -“Characterful, apple-skin-flavoured Gaillac and Limoux variety used in dry, sweet and sparkling wines.” – which is then followed by a description of its origins and parentage, viticultural characteristics, and a section about where it’s grown and what its wine tastes like. I was excited to find that Chateau Rives-Blancs is mentioned alongside two of the region’s other leading producers. Also, Schramsberg of Napa Valley has planted a little in California. The entry on the variety has also spurred me on to track down an intriguing style called Methode Ancestrale, a cloudy, medium-sweet, lightly sparkling wine which is bottled before the end of the first fermentation.
Across the border in Italy we’ve picked up another rare breed called Pugnitello. Whilst Sangiovese and more recently the big international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are becoming more and more synonymous with Tuscany, it was with eager anticipation that we received this Pugnitello from Azienda Agricola Le Buche. Apparently Pugnitello is a relatively recent find having been rescued in 1981 by researchers at the University of Firenze, who then collaborated with producer San Felice to make the first commercial bottling of the variety in 2003. Since then, four other producers, including Le Buche, have taken an interest in the variety. The vines are “vigorous but not very productive because of the small bunches, which produce musts rich in sugar, anthocyanins and tannins.” These characteristics produce a wine with an intense opaque color and a perfumed nose of rich fruit and pain grille. On the palate the wine has layers of fine tannin and a good level of acidity that keeps the wine vibrant and bright.
Just earlier last year we picked up a Sauvignonasse made by Napa producer Macauley. The wine is labeled under its old Italian synonym, Tocai Friulano. “The variety was introduced to Friuli, north-east Italy, in the early nineteenth century and given the name Tokai” with “the modern name Tocai Friulano appearing in the 1930s.” This was done to take advantage of the famous wines of Tokaji. As of 2009, however, after successful lobbying from Hungarian producers, the name Tocai Friulano has been banned from wine labels exported from Italy. Apparently there is not enough grown over here to worry the Hungarians! It was long thought to be a unique variety perhaps originating from Hungary but ampelographic studies and DNA profiling has definitively established that Tocai Friulano and Sauvignonasse are one and the same. The grape is an old variety from the Gironde region of South-West France, which despite its name is unrelated to Sauvignon Blanc. But all that said, what does it taste like? Macauley’s 2010 is packed with the type of nervous minerality you get from cold, wet river stones. As the wine warms up, new but delicate aromas of dried apricot and pear come forward. It has almost a sensual effect not often obtained from a white wine. The palate speaks further to the minerality of the wine, based in part from both the varietal characteristics and aging in stainless steel and concrete egg. Flavors are nothing short of savory and delicious. It is such as shame it’s not grown more widely, but what a delight it was to find this gem of a wine.
Felix is Schneider's New Media Manager and wine student currently studying for the Wine & Spirits Education Trust Diploma, a prerequisite for the Institute of Master of Wine.