Beyond the big-name grapes
The most important wine book published last year was Wine Grapes, by the highly respected English wine-writer, Jancis Robinson and two colleagues, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz. The book weighs in at 2.5 kg and 1,242 pages, and provides detailed information on 1,368 grape varieties used to make commercial wines. Yes, 1,368. If your drinking range covers only about half a dozen, you can see you have work to do.
You can start with the four wines I review today, all made with less-known varieties. (Viognier is not so unusual, but how often do you drink it?) What about gros manseng (and yes, there is a petit manseng)? It’s a reasonably common variety in southwest France, and is often blended with sauvignon blanc, as it is here, where it adds some richness to the flavours of the blend.
Then there’s bonarda, from Argentina. I tasted a number of bonardas on my last two trips to Argentina, and I wish I had tried more. They had lots of flavour without being too heavy, and tended to have a food-friendly juiciness to them. I remember a discussion with other wine writers during one of these trips about whether bonarda could be the Next Big Red. It’s widely grown in Argentina, and I could see a flood of bonarda following the inundation of malbec.
As with many grape varieties, the origins of bonarda are unclear. It’s not the same variety as the one known as bonarda in Italy’s Piedmont region. Robinson says it’s really the douce noire variety, which used to be widely planted in Savoie, in eastern France, where it is now known as corbeau. Confused yet? Well, it’s called charbono in California.
Then there’s today’s Portuguese blend. Portugal turns out many inexpensive, good-value reds like this one, most made from indigenous grape varieties plus one or two immigrants. This example has castelão, aragonez (the Spanish variety better known as tempranillo) and syrah.
Castelão is Portugal’s most widely planted variety, no doubt because it thrives in a wide range of soil and climatic conditions.
As you can see, some grape varieties have a number of names. We’re used to this with syrah and shiraz; the variety called syrah in France was known as shiraz in Australia, the country that popularized it as a mass-market wine. But now there’s little rhyme or reason to syrah/shiraz labelling. Some producers opt for one or the other based on the style of their wine, while others use marketing power as the criterion: shiraz is better known to consumers, but (in some non-Australian minds) syrah denotes a more sophisticated wine.
In line with your resolution to drink more adventurously this year, look for varieties you haven’t tried. If you find a wine made from a variety that looks interesting, but you want to know more about it, email me. If I don’t know it, I have Jancis Robinson at hand to help out.
Brumont Gros Manseng-Sauvignon 2011
This is a vibrant, refreshing white from Côtes de Gascogne in south-west France. The fruit is bright and consistent from start to finish, and the acidity makes it great for seafood, white fish, or for sipping on its own. 12.5-per-cent alcohol; $12.70 (297234)
Cono Sur ‘Bicicleta’ Viognier 2011
This is excellent value. It’s a lovely white that shows rich, fruit-sweet flavours throughout, refreshing acidity, and a plush texture. It’s very good with moderately spicy dishes featuring seafood or poultry. 13.5-per-cent alcohol; $9.95 (64287)
Argento Bonarda 2011
From Argentina’s Mendoza region, this is a nicely made red with plenty of polished flavour harnessed to clean acidity. It’s dry, with easy-going tannins, and pairs well with many red meats but also with poultry. 13.5-per-cent alcohol; $9.95 (292458)
Bacalhõa ‘JP’ Red 2011
A blend of three varieties (one indigenous to Portugal) this is a very good-value choice for burgers, steaks and ribs. Look for concentrated, ripe flavours, a fairly robust texture, and tannins that are drying and smooth. 13.5-per-cent alcohol; $8.95 (286195)