The weirdos are coming

Writer and broadcaster Andrew Jefford reflects on the rise of less well-known and often frankly unpronounceable grape varieties

Imagine that the bottle in front of you is a piece of music. (Your musical tastes are immaterial: this analogy works for all.) There is, first of all, the music itself, as it might be composed, transcribed or hummed by its creator. That melodic essence equates to the wine’s terroir, the source of its fundamental character: impossible to duplicate and, at its rare best, moving and profound. Music, of course, doesn’t come into full being until it is performed, just as terroir is merely potential until human beings intervene. The performer, skilled or otherwise, is the viticulturalist and winemaker.

But there’s a third element, too: the musical instruments chosen to play the piece of music. They, if you like, are the grape varieties. Of course, you can play more or less anything on the piano or the guitar, just as you can make a drinkable wine in most locations with chardonnay or syrah. But exquisite musical expression is inextricably bound up with the sound of certain musical instruments: cimbalom, oud, gamelan, oboe. A masterpiece played on the wrong instruments can sound oddly trivial.

If you agree with this analogy, it has startling implications. Almost all of the wine world’s varietal diversity, for the time being, remains in Europe and northwestern Asia, with hotspots in Portugal, Italy, Switzerland and the Caucasus. The world’s newer wineproducing locations are varietally homogenous. Some 63% of Australian plantings, for example, are represented by just three varieties: chardonnay, cabernet and syrah (2010 figures). In California, 65% of plantings are accounted for by five varieties: chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, merlot and pinot noir (2011 figures). The diversity of terroir in those locations cannot be given adequate voice by those plantings. Most of their music is, for the time being, played on a handful of instruments.

There are sage reasons for this. When you explore a new area, it makes sense to begin the experiment by using a variety with proven quality potential. Most non- European wine, too, is sold under its varietal name, and the majority of wine consumers don’t like buying wine made from unfamiliar varieties. Replanting with new varieties is expensive and time-consuming. All of this means that there is considerable inertia in varietal evolution. Nonetheless I am sure that the figures I have just cited above will be read with a bemused smile in 200 years’ time by future wine historians. The weirdos are coming.

Albariño country in Spain’s north-west

Most of our fellow wine-drinkers may want cab, chard and, um, pinot grigio (the bland seducer is now Britain’s most popular varietal wine); happily, though, a growing minority of us is ready to engage with the unfamiliar and the strange. Joanna Goodman profiles some of the varieties to emerge from the shadows over the last few years in the box on the right, and there are now few serious wine lists which would omit, say, a mineral-saturated assyrtiko from Santorini; beautifully scuplted dry or sweet Jurançon made from the gros and petit manseng varieties; or the fragrant, refreshing whites grown up in Spain’s Galicia and Portugal’s Minho from varieties like albariño/alvarinho, godello and loureiro. We are all familiar with another set of strange varieties without realising it. Great Soave from a top producer can be a magnificently sympathetic food partner: step forward garganega. Who doesn’t love the crunchy cherry freshness of an impeccably vinified Valpolicella? Thank you, corvina. The glories of Tokaj are played out on the zither-like furmint and the cimbalom-like hárslevelü.

The assyrtiko vine is perfectly suited to Santorini’s volcanic soilThe world’s less well-known grape varieties are slowly penetrating newer wine-producing locations: the skilled Dr Brian Freeman has made a determined effort to articulate the terroir of the Hilltops region via corvina and rondinella, while the Cooper family at Cobaw Ridge in the Macedon Ranges produces a fine (biodynamically grown) lagrein, just to cite two Australian examples, and I have recently tasted both arneis and vermentino from California. Matching variety to site, though, is a long and painstaking process. It is vitally important, too, that the natural vineyard equilibrium of carefully grown raw materials is respected in the winery if we are to have a clear picture of how a new variety performs in a place. If those varieties are early-picked or forcefully adjusted (as often happens to low-acid varieties in Australia), you end with a varietal wine whose character is either muted or deformed.

What fun the process is, though! Some of the most memorable wine-tasting moments of my life came in 2012 as I discovered magnificent indigenous renditions of varieties new to me.

Let me give you three examples. A summer trip to Piedmont was freighted with discoveries, most notably the extraordinarily tannic pink wines from the grignolino grape and the musky yet extractive reds made from ruchè. Then, in September in Hong Kong, I found myself overseeing a flight or two of wines from ‘Eastern Europe’ for the Decanter Asia Wine Awards. Suddenly we hit some wonderfully alluring, allusive whites which cruised to gold. What were they? Either mstvane on its own, or in blends with rikatsiteli: both from Georgia. The red Georgian saperavis were very nearly as good, collaring a bunch of silvers. As a consequence, I’m heading for Georgia as soon as I can, in April 2013. Finally, in Turkey in November for the European Wine Bloggers’ Conference, my eyes were opened to the perfumed finesse of reds made from the kalecik karasý variety, and the haunting fenugreek spice and richer textures of reds made from bogazkere. Don’t overlook peachy narince and the lip-smacking reds from öküzgözü, either: all deserve some experimental southern-hemisphere plantings.

'Ah yes, I know what you’re going to say next: the names, the names. I agree it’s a problem, so why don’t we invent a locally adapted synonym or two? That process, after all, has a long historical precedent. And then – let the music begin.

Andrew Jefford has a regular blog and column in Decanter magazine and is contributing editor for The World of Fine Wine magazine. He is the Louis Roederer International Online Columnist of the Year 2012.

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