April 05, 2010

Variety is the spice of life!

Test yourself! Without aid of books or internet, see how many grape varieties you can name. Chances are you'll be struggling to come up with even 20 to 30, yet there are thousands of grape varieties used in wine production today. So, armed with this thought and equipped with the moderately vast selection from the many LCBO's in Ottawa, and some other sources, I recently held a wine tasting focused on lesser known grape varieties, for an enthusiastic group of tasters. Limited by the reality of consumption by tasters less inclined to taste and spit and more inclined to swallow and enjoy completely, I limited the selection at 7 wines, and a great time was had by all.

First on the tasting agenda was a nice Chasselas, also known as Fendant, a very popular, simple and crisp white wine, produced in Switzerland, from the grape of the same name. During a year living in France on the border with Switzerland, we often enjoyed Chasselas with wonderful Swiss fondue (also used in the recipe), or with heart stoppingly delicious raclette. A lot of wine is produced in Switzerland, but most of it is consumed locally, so it's not common to find Swiss wines on the world stage.
Next up was a Torrontes from Argentina. With its wonderfully aromatic and perfumed nose and juicy palate, this varietal from Argentina, created by guest winemaker Alberto Antonini for Proyecto Mas, was typical of Torrontes - well known in Argentina, less known elsewhere.
Pinot Noir could hardly be regarded as a lesser known grape variety. Grown all over the world and bottled in dramatically different expression, usually dependent on its growing conditions and winemaking techniques, we next enjoyed a lovely New World Pinot from Montes winery in the Colchagua Valley in Chile. New World Pinot is often a good conduit from tasting whites to more full bodied reds and this one was a favourite with many. Elegant, gently fruity, refreshing and nicely balanced, this wine presented great value at around $20 a bottle, as do so many Chilean wines at every price point.
Then back to obscure grape varieties, although probably not if you're from Greece. Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto - all indigenous Greek grape varieties, mingled in this next blend from the Tsantali winery. Statistically the least favourite wine of the evening, this one suffered from a general muddiness and lack of definition and balance. Can't love 'em all!
At $12 a bottle, the next blend of 75% Tinta Roriz and 25% Touriga Franca from the Symington Family, and the Douro region of Portugal, was deemed by many as the best value of the evening. The craftsmen of the Douro use their consummate skills to produce memorable Porto and some very good wines, like this lovely, medium to full bodied Altano. With a delightful nose - floral, a little spicy, raspberries and cherries, and a lovely juicy taste, this wine provided reason in plenty not to bypass the Portuguese section of the local wine store.
On to Italy - probably my most favourite wine country - and a Valpolicella Ripasso from the Veneto region. Valpolicella is a common enough wine name, but not everyone knows the constituent grapes in a Valpolicella wine - namely Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella; nor the particular method of producing Ripasso wines, which uses the spent dried skins and must from the Amarone production process, re-fermented with Valpolicella wine to make a wine richer than common or garden Valpolicella but not quite as intensely delectable as an Amarone. (There - that was a GE sentence)! Ripasso wines are generally oak aged for 18 to 24 months so there's lots of additional complexity in the bottle. Yum!
Last up, a particular favourite of mine, and a big brooding, satisfying wine from Apulia - the heel of Italy. Aglianico is one of the oldest grape varieties in the world and produces wines which benefit from aging, to allow the tannins to integrate. This 2004 wine from the Rivera winery spent a year in oak, then a further year in bottle at the winery before release. It arrived in modest quantity at the LCBO one Saturday in March and was gone the same day. Aglianico might not be a household name, but there are enough wine lovers in Ottawa to know that $20 a bottle presented extremely good value. This wine had a wonderfully complex nose, with rich red fruit and barrel characteristics, lots to chew and enjoy on the palate and a very satisfying finish. It was drinking very nicely for my taste buds, but I will try very hard to hang onto my couple of remaining bottles for a few more years, when it should show even better. It has more than enough fruit, alcohol and tannins to let it stand up well after a bit of cellaring.
So, 'fess up - how many of these dozen or so varieties, apart from Pinot Noir, did you know? Next time you're in the liquor store picking up a Chardonnay for the salmon or a Cab Sauv or Malbec for the BBQ lamb, look around until you find something you've never tried before and give it a whirl. You might discover something wonderful!