Meet the grapes that are redefining an industry
The residents of Vinifera Blvd are a diverse lot. Many of them are international superstars, darlings of both critics and consumers. They are inevitably of royal European lineage, with roots stretching far back though history. Being the time of year when they’re all out flaunting their fruit after a summer of soaking up the sun, we’ve a grape opportunity to check out the berries on the block.
There’s Cabernet Sauvignon — chiselled hard-body (and captain of the grapeball team), who answers to Cab Sauv (or Cab Suave, or King Cab) and who’s rarely seen without his loyal buds — the somewhat fleshy Merlot and the sinuous one we’ll just call Franc (who sometimes comes off as a bit green, but also sports a spicy kick). These guys seem to always end up in the same vat together. Kinda suspicious, if you think about it.
Then there’s the (almost inseparable) Betty and Veronica duo of pretty Ms Chardonnay and her darker, more mysterious foil, Mme Pinot Noir. The former makes friends everywhere and can come off as bubbly but (at times, a bit vacuous) though she does have quite a serious side when you can coax it out. The beguiling Mme Noir is almost everything her GF isn’t — temperamental, thin-skinned and often downright hard to work with. In spite of the fact that she can really get up in your canopy, she has a devout following that’s willing to put up with her prima donna antics for an all-too-rare glimpse of her true vinous beauty. She has a ton of clones. Anyways, moving on …
Ah, there’s the split personality — Dr Syrah and Mr Shiraz. Sure, same roots, but two distinct characters. Dr Syrah is by far the more serious of the pair. He can be wrapped a bit tight at times; but he does — as any sapling will attest — open up when Lady Viognier crosses his path. Must be the French connection or something.
Mr Shiraz is louder and tends to speak in purple prose. However, you have to admire his close-to-universal popularity. He’s always gathering clusters at veraison, which, to me, just reeks of Mega-purple (and often of inner staves). Personally, I find him to be a show-off that could use a good cropping. Hope he gets oidium … if not phylloxera.
Okay, stop staring at the well-pruned, willowy blond with the high-trellises. Fräulein Riesling. German supermodel type. Elegant, refined … and also a bit racy — but apparently she’s not really into blending. Shame to see her staying single, though (bet she’s highly organic). Sometimes her perfume can be a tad distracting — sorta like the high-octane stuff she decants into her Beemer — but I’m sure she’ll age gracefully if she can keep her nose outta the oxygen. Anyway, she’s not gonna find her prince by kissing nematodes. Just sayin’.
I could pick (or pick on) a few other various and sundry ripe berries in the field … if pressed. There are the Italians, notably Nebbiolo (a kinda hard seed from some fog-enshrouded hamlet in the north), and Sangiovese (a nice ragazzo from the Tuscan hills who’s — IMHO — being overly influenced by King Cab and his droogs). And I think he’s taken to sleeping way too long in that new oak apartment. Neither of these guys is really into travelling, though. They pretty much stick to their own plots.
Pinot Gris — Mr Gris — less said about him the better. Seriously, he’s a mutant (with questionable tastes … Fifty Shades of Gris, and all that). But at least he has some character, not like his evil twin, Grigio. “Wet” is about his most redeeming quality. Popular, though (for whatever reason).
And I’m not quite sure about the pip over there they call Gamay. Is he red or white? Sometimes hard to tell. Yeah, he can get a party stomping, but I find him just a tad fruity. Plus, he, like, does carbonic (everybody knows) … and believe me, it ain’t pretty when he’s fermenting internally.
Guy sulking behind the mechanical harvester? Zinfandel — beefy, darkly tanned West Coast dude with a severe image problem. Couldn’t get enough attention so he came out and told everyone that he was really pink. Now he’s in full-on damage control mode, claiming the pink thing was “manipulation” and that he’s really “serious.” Right. Well, at least Paul Draper hasn’t abandoned him. Yet.
Speaking of serious, I’m seriously done with all the fuss over flighty little Sauvignon Blanc. She was actually pretty well behaved back home in France, but then the damn Kiwis put her up on a pedestal and her inner banshee was loosed. Now she just screams shrilly (and incessantly) about the virtues of cut grass, gooseberry and cooked asparagus. Grow up … little tart!
I could go on, but you’re likely getting sick of my whining. In any case, I’ve had it with these desirable (I refuse to call them “noble”) vines that laud it around the world. Do they think their VA doesn’t stink? Anyway, they’ve all taken to the graft — and I’m pretty sure the whole overripe bunch is into fungicides. I’d rather have the juice of other, lesser but more honest raisins under my refractometer. These guys may not be the most popular on the block, but without them some regions — and even countries — wouldn’t have much of a wine culture.
Meet, for example, my good friend Señor Garnacha (aka Monsieur Grenache when he travels to France). Garnacha gets around (including to places like Sardinia, where he answers to the more exotic-sounding Cannonau. He even covers close to 1,000 hectares in Mexico, of all places), but where he likes best to flex his shoots is under the hot sun of Spain and southern France.
Sr Garnacha is a working man, to be sure, but this doesn’t mean he can’t hold his own among his more aristocratic counterparts. In fact, in Spain, he often lends his backbone to support the more swish (though far less gutsy) Tempranillo. And in France, he can be seen, more often than not, contemplating vinous verities over a glass of pastis with the stoic Dr Syrah.
However, as much as Sr Garnacha likes to mingle and lend support to all who require it, he can shine on his own (though this still seems to be a bit of a secret). He’s the High Pape of Châteauneuf in the playground of Château Reyas, and, in the volcanic, licorella soils of Priorat, he lends weight to some of Spain’s most expensive and sought-after reds.
Íñigo Alberto, Commercial Director of Bodegas Borsao (located in the Campo de Borja region of Aragón — The Empire of the Garnacha), is very familiar with the various faces of Sr Garnacha. And though he’s distinctly masculine, Alberto says he has a certain Cinderella-like character. “He’s done the dirty work for decades, but now he’s starting to shine on his own!”
Alberto also notes that Sr Garnacha’s character shifts based on where he lives. “He can produce light and simple wines with low acidity when grown in rich soils with plenty of water and mild temperatures. On the other hand, when grown in harsh conditions like in Campo de Borja that include scarce rain, windy conditions (the Cierzo is the local name of the wind), hot summers and cold winters, Garnacha vines produce smaller [amounts] of voluptuous wines; lively and vibrant with perfect balance between acidity and alcohol.”
It’s also good to note, as Alberto does, that the sprightly, young version of Garnacha behaves nothing like the more mature elder character.
“Garnacha is very sensitive to age,” Alberto reveals. “Meaning that the older he is, the better the grapes he will produce. An old Garnacha vine will be very consistent in terms of yield and also in terms of quality, something that doesn’t happen with other varieties. Our aim is to preserve the oldest plots of Garnacha in Campo de Borja by applying the best possible practices to avoid the uprooting of these very unique vines.”
Yes, Sr Garnacha enjoys his place in the sun (low-key as it might be). I wish I could say the same for the shy, yet charming and fair-skinned, Mademoiselle Chenin (Blanc). The poor girl. Such potential. Such versatility. So misunderstood. It’s very sad, really, and I pity her as much as I (secretly) swoon over her. She’s the Mary Ann Summers to Fräulein Riesling’s Ginger Grant (and, like Mary Ann, all the boys would probably take her over Riesling any day). She lets her vivacity show (as much as is proper for a lady of her demeanour) back home in the cool vineyards of the Loire, where her naturally high acidity is held in check by a real sweet streak. But on the international scene she strikes me as somewhat confused about her own identity — who she is, what she should be doing and how she should be presenting herself to the world’s discerning cognofrementi.
“My feel is that Chenin Blanc is both male and female,” say Neil Fortes, owner of the Wine Guru agency which specializes in (among other things) South African wines (he also owns a farm in South Africa), noting that in that region (where the grape has made a second home), it can yield wines that are refined and feminine, as well as bold and masculine. Originally planted to slake the thirst of those looking for a simple quaff, a handful of pioneers began experimenting with wood-aged Chenin in a decidedly “serious” style.
At one point, Steen (as the South Africans called he/she/it) was in danger of loosing its foothold, grubbed up in favour of sexier numbers. But a new wave of winemakers is bringing it the attention it deserves. “In South Africa … Chenin is now a cult varietal,” Fortes confirms, “and winemakers are trying to make great Chenin. There is now a Chenin challenge [competition] in South Africa and many winemakers have stepped up to try their hand.”
While Ms/Mr (whichever) Chenin grapples with identity issues, other grapes have clearly established themselves and, having been more or less shown the door by their country of origin, have risen to heights in fields abroad. Enter Malbec and Carménère.
Until fairly recently, Carm and Mal were having a bit of a tough go of things. Carm used to hang with Cab Sauv & Co in the posh enclaves of Bordeaux, until phylloxera (the Black Death of European grapes) brought that little party to an end. Most of the big shots accepted American graft and came back to life, Carm refused to be taken. Luckily, Carm managed to hightail it to Chile and escaped total extinction. Here, he was thought to be Merlot for the longest time. In any case, Carm fell in love with the warm South American sun, as well as the long, dry autumns in Chile’s Central Valley.
“Carménère is recognized as a green variety,” explains François Pouzet, Export Manager North America for Bethwines, which counts Santa Alicia as one of its many Chilean brands. “To reach his potential, he needs to be picked very late in comparison with other varieties.” Pouzet also points out that Carm’s original nemesis, phylloxera, has never made it to Chile. “Thanks to our ‘natural borders’ with the Andes Mountain in the east, the Coastal range in the west, the desert in the north and the ice in the south, it is very difficult for any pest like the phylloxera to get inside our country and harm our vineyards.”
This has made Carm very happy, and very grateful to his new Chilean friends, whom he has repaid with generous fruit yields and, in turn, luscious, award-winning red wines.
Like Carm, Mal also struck pay dirt in South America — in Argentina this time — where he’s given the country absolutely nothing to cry about. He still lingers in pockets of his French homeland, and his successful rise to stardom overseas is also elevating his status back there.
Paul Hobbs, a “flying winemaker” with something of the Midas touch, saw the potential of Malbec — and of Argentine wines in general — during his first visit in 1988. Having attracted the attention of French winemaker Bertrand Vigouroux (whose family has been producing Malbec-based wines in Cahors since the 1860s), the pair established a partnership, and is now producing Crocus Malbec de Cahors in the French soil where Mal first grew up.
For Hobbs, visiting Cahors was much like his first visit to Argentina. “I had a very similar feeling,” he confirms. “Just like in Argentina, I saw a vast amount of hidden potential in Cahors … but the wines struck me as being hard, green and aggressively tannic.” He adds that with Crocus, the aim is to do for Malbec in Cahors what he helped do with Malbec in Argentina, noting, with a degree of irony, that the situation in Cahors “ … is possibly the only one where France is having to catch up to the New World.”
But the geography and weather in the foothills of the Andes must be quite different from that of the southwest France wine region. Apparently, this suits Mal fine.
“Malbec can be spectacular in very dissimilar regions,” Hobbs explains. “He crosses terroirs distinctively and beautifully, yielding wines that can be big, fat and blowsy, or very floral and mineral-driven.”
David Bonomi, winemaker for Argentina’s Bodega Norton, concurs with Hobbs. “Keep in mind that Malbec spreads from northern Argentina (Salta-Jujuy) to Patagonia (Neuquen-Rio Negro) with excellent results, but in very different styles.”
He’s truly a grape for all palates, my friend Mal, and he’s won the hearts of many. As Bonomi eloquently states, “Malbec is a kind gentleman, with a very adaptable personality, who stands out, but possesses the right touch of modesty. Malbec is trustworthy and will not let you down. In the end, everybody loves him. When you meet him, you’ll fall in love and you won’t let him go.”
Indeed, those staking a claim on Vinifera Blvd can represent some pretty royal lineage. But I’d suggest getting to know some of the more marginal types. They can be less demanding on your patience and pocketbooks. And, with a little persistence, I think you’ll find them to be generous, reliable, and, most importantly, very, very friendly.
Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc 2014, South Africa ($20)
From a leading producer of South African Chenin Blanc. Waxy, apricot nose with hints of fresh melon, vanilla and a sprinkle of dried herbs. Quite full and creamy on the palate with flavours suggesting honeydew melon, ripe apple and a touch of vanilla on the finish.
Borsao Garnacha 2013, Borja, Spain ($12)
Here we have Sr Garnacha doing one of the things he does best — lending support and backbone to more “prestigious” grape varieties — in this case, Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon (the proportions of which vary depending on the year). There are subtle hints of iodine, mineral and freshly cut herbs, along with notes of cedar shavings and cocoa powder. Flavours of fresh black raspberry are enhanced by hints of graphite and spice that trail off to a long, persistent finish.
Viña Cobos Bramare Malbec 2012, Argentina ($45)
Paul Hobbs seems to have realized the potential he first saw in Argentina if this Bramare Malbec is any indication. The complex aromatic profile offers up blueberry, kirsch, mint, tobacco leaf, wet slate and coffee grounds. Rich and full, but retaining balance and poise among the layers of blueberry, blackberry, earthy/gamey/mint notes. Certainly not the cheap ‘n cheerful stuff most of us are used to, but proof that in the right vineyards, and in the right hands, Argentine Malbec is truly capable of greatness.
Alamos Malbec 2013, Argentina ($15)
The 2013 Alamos Malbec is 90 percent composed of the principal variety, with support from Syrah and Bonarda. Loads of concentrated, smoky plum and dark berry aromas give way to a fairly dense structure that wraps itself around the palate, coating it with layers of blackberry, subtle oak and mild spice. It matched famously with a 48oz “tomahawk” steak that I devoured along with about six other people (to clarify: I devoured the steak, as did the six other people) at a lovely Argentine resto in Toronto.
Bodega Norton Malbec Reserva 2011, Argentina ($18)
Fruit for this wine was sourced from vines over thirty years old. Eucalyptus, cassis, violet, tobacco leaf, wood smoke and maybe a touch of new leather and bell pepper. Nicely balanced with flavours suggesting mint, black cherry, black pepper and dark chocolate. Long and supple on the finish.
Artamisque Malbec 2011, Argentina ($30)
From 100-year-old, pre-phyloxera rootstock vines comes this muscular (15% ABV), dense, concentrated Malbec that’ll certainly please those who appreciate both power and poise. Typical aromas of blueberry and wet slate are enhanced and given complexity via suggestions of mint and menthol. Dense, meaty and ultra-concentrated, it’s loaded with black cherry compote seamlessly integrated with some sweet oak notes. A real heavyweight.
Santa Alicia Reserva Carmenere 2013, Chile ($13)
For less than $13.00, Santa Alicia’s Reserva Carmenere offers exceptional value. Black cherry, smoky plum, leather, mocha, vanilla, tobacco leaf…there all here, and wrapped around a core of ripe, mouth filling dark fruit flavours. A kiss of spice and vanilla follow through on the silky finish.
Santa Alicia Carmenere Gran Reserva De Los Andres 2012, Chile ($16)
Showing lots of intensity on the nose, this Gran Reserva offers a plethora of aromas suggesting blackberry jam, clove, nutmeg, pepper, coffee and dried herbs. Supple and round, but with lots going on in the flavour department, including smoky/toasty/mineral overtones supported by some leafy/herbal nuances, all wrapped around a dense, chewy core of ripe black fruit.