One of the greatest revolutions in the wine world was, and is, the labelling of wines not by where they come from, but by what’s in the bottle. Labelling by grape variety is a major factor in the success of wines from Australasia, South Africa and the Americas. Certain varieties like Sauvignon Blanc or Merlot are brands in and of themselves, signalling to a casual consumer their general style and flavour profile. This is, above all, easy to understand, but it’s still not widely practised in Europe - “New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc” tells you everything you need to know about the wine, while “Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOCG” is not only a mouthful for Anglophones, but gives you no indication of the style of wine or its origin unless you already know (or that in this case, it’s probably a blend of three or four different varieties, in proportions that will vary by year and by producer).
So that’s all rosy - but what about the downsides? One effect is the reduction in the number of different grape varieties being cultivated, especially in those New World regions where varietal labelling is king. If Cabernet Sauvignon is the saleable grape variety, why bother growing the less profitable Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc for blending like they do in Bordeaux? That logic even holds in areas like the Languedoc, which are still bound by a system of protected origin (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée in France) but more loosely than Burgundy or the Loire Valley, and so the traditional blends are being simplified. Even in ultra-traditional Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where, famously, 13 varieties are permitted in the blends, most producers now use only a handful.
This trend means that those less productive, less marketable, less “useful” varieties have often been torn up and replaced with something which follows the market trend. Many local varieties have been made extinct by this process, or have been saved at the last gasp by a single producer - the Etraire de l’Auduï from Jérémy Bricka in April’s Alpine case is such a variety. Others now appear only as 5-10% of certain blends, relegated to a “supporting act” by their rustic characteristics or unfashionable name. Some are still planted in some quantity but are rarely sold outside of their locality. And some, as a result of market saturation and rising prices, are seeing a resurgence and, like the perennial flared denim trouser, coming back into fashion.
We’ve put together a case of fairly modest but very tasty wines for you, each of which features a grape variety which we think deserves to be enjoyed on its own merits. Let us know what you think, including whether or not any of these should rightly be consigned to the vinous scrapheap!
2019 Carignan Vieilles Vignes, Domaine des Tourelles, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon - £22.99, 14%
100% Carignan. Some of you may be familiar with this estate as we have stocked their flagship red blend for years. Just like its fate in the south of France, most of their Carignan goes into said blend to give it colour and structure, but beginning in 2019 enigmatic winemaker Faouzi Issa decided to take fruit from the oldest vines and make this wine to show off what Carignan can do. It sees only concrete during production, preserving the purity of the grape’s character, which is all lifted cranberry and raspberry, ripe fig and tangy liquorice. The finish is clean and fresh. Drink with lamb tagine, grilled vegetables, or semi-hard cheeses.
2017 “Circumstance” Mourvèdre, Waterkloof, Stellenbosch, South Africa - £20.99, 13.5%
100% Mourvèdre. This is another black variety relegated to a blending component in the south of France, but which has been given some attention in the New World and in Spain (where it is known as Monastrell), where it ripens a little better. Waterkloof is a biodynamic passion project, with horses working in the vineyards, wine aged in old 600-litre barrels, and minimal filtration. The wine features dark, herbal fruit with graphite and a meaty core, framed by freshening acidity and very generous but fine tannins. Drink with grilled lamb (or wild boar if you have any), mature cheeses or a tandoori mixed grill.
2020 “La Collection” Blanc, Maison Boutinot, Côtes de Thau, France - £12.99, 13%
60% Vermentino, 30% Terret, 5% Viognier, 5% Grenache Blanc. This wine is two in one. First Vermentino, which in France is used mostly in Rosé de Provence (as Rolle) for citrussy, aromatic lift, features here as the main player. Terret, which features rarely in various Languedoc blends (and the odd Châteauneuf-du-Pape), adds fatness and length, while the much more mainstream Viognier lends its floral support. The wine features notes of white flowers, candied lemon and lime zest, with ripe peach and a little quince on the palate, followed by a fresh, saline finish. Drink with any fresh seafood, as if you were on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean.
NV Cava Brut Rosat, Mas Macià, Penedès, Spain - £14.99, 12%
100% Trepat. This black variety is seeing a resurgence, albeit from a very low base, as it was almost completely pushed out in the very big corporate business of Cava production, long dominated by two companies - Freixenet and Codorníu. It’s native to Catalunya, particularly to the Odena subregion where family estate Can Macià resides. There they make Cava with the traditional method, with an extended 18 months of bottle ageing. The wine is packed full of fresh wild berries and gently nutty pastry notes, full and lively on the palate with a delicate finish. Drink as an aperitif or with river fish, baked rice dishes, or fresh, milky cheeses.
2018 Sylvaner Vieilles Vignes, Cave de Turckheim, Alsace, France - £14.99, 13.5%
100% Sylvaner. This is one of those varieties which can, in some rare cases, reach the highest of highs - Alsace Grand Cru Zotzenberg, for one - but most often has a bit of a humdrum reputation, perhaps even one of “blandness”. This cuvée, on the contrary, has everything going for it: from vines over 35 years old, fermented and matured in temperature-controlled acacia barrels (a Tyrolean tradition), and kept on the lees for at least six months before bottling. The wine is weighty and opulent, with zesty citrus fruit and a softly spiced, floral honey note. Serve with fluffy omelettes, quiche, salads or fried rice.
2018 Aligoté, Domaine Félix, Bourgogne, France - £18.99, 13%
100% Aligoté. Of all of the varieties here, this one undoubtedly has the most buzz, the new darling of sommeliers across Europe and particularly in North America. It would have to be exciting for a producer to plant something other than Chardonnay or Pinot Noir in Burgundian soil. Typically, you might confuse this wine with old-fashioned Chablis, but 2018’s searingly hot summer means that this carries a little more peach and pear, and a little less fierce acidity, than in other years. Sapid and markedly chalky on the finish, this is an ideal pairing for salads or simply steamed white fish dishes.
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