Dr José Vouillamoz, Ampelologist and co-author with Jancis Robinson MW and Julia Harding MW of the book "Wine Grapes", organised by the Circle of Wine Writers.
What does a wine made from one of the world's most obscure grape varieties taste like ?
Does the degree of obscurity of the grapes that go into the wine make it a better or less good wine ?
Are obscure grape varieties a symbol of diversity and heritage to be celebrated and preserved - or the oenological equivalent of dinosaurs or minor composers who merit no more than a footnote in history.
I am - still - undecided on these points; I want to see diversity and variety in wines, but I am not interested in obscurity for its own sake, wine tasting as a competitive, acquisitive, box-ticking exercise.
11 wines from 11 obscure and rare grape varieties.
Versoaln 2009 - Castel Katzenungen, Sudtirol, Italy (Versaoln), 350yo vines, 350m2 acreage, can only be bought by the bottle at the winery: light sandy yellow, green apple and mineral nose; peachy and waxy, with ripe tropical fruit and some spiciness. Light with good acidity.
Rudesheimer Berg - Schlossberg Orleans 2011, Georg Bruer, Rheingau, Germany (Orleans Gelb) one parent is Gouais Blanc, making it related to Chardonnay, Riesling and Furmint; was considered extinct in the 1920s, but now made by two wineries. Golden sandy yellow, floral and marzipan aromas, very high acidity initially, leading to salinity and minerality with some yellow stone fruit. Persistence and a touch of almond bitterness on the finish.
Lafnetscha 2011 - Chanton Kellerei, Visp, Switzerland (Lafnetscha) first mentioned in 1627, the name is apparently a local dialect for "don't drink too early", a reference to its high acidity. Parents are Humagne and Completer. 1.5ha grown, 4 producers. Fermented in stainless steel, medium straw colour, floral nose with almonds and green apples, high acidity and dense structure; white pear fruit and some sweet spice.
Grk 2011 - Branimir Cebalo, Korcula, Croatia (Grk) around 50ha, 2,400 bottles only, a difficult vine to cultivate. Deep golden sandy, aromatic, toasty nose; melon, honey and toastiness with some orange peel aromas. Fresh acidity.
Kolorko 2010 - Pasaeli Hoskoy, Turkey (Kolorko) almost nothing known about this grape's history, origins or acreage, but in decline since the 1960s; Pasaeli is the only known producer. Barrel fermented, then aged in glass demijohns. Golden sandy yellow, with volatile aromas of nail polish. Prominent sharpness, on the palate, quite challenging, with bitter lemon and pink grapefruit; zesty, bitter finish.
Vigna del Lume 2012 - Antonio Mazzella, Ischia, Italy (Biancolella) related to another local grape on this island, San Lunardo, only 6,000 bottles produced, a touch of late harvest. Medium golden straw, tropical fruit and sweet spice, pineapple and honeysuckle with some dried apricot. Well-balanced with a persistent finish.
Negre de San Colonia 2010 - Vins Toni Gelabert, Mallorca, Spain (Callet) 134ha grown, Callet means "black" in the local dialect, spends 13m in French and American oak - a favourite of Wine Grapes co-author Julia Harding MW, apparently. Dark purple, sweet oaky spice, vanilla and coconut, red fruits and tobacco on the palate; fresh acidity, supple tannins and a long finish.
Karasi 2011 - Zorah Wines, Rind, Armenia (Areni) almost nothing is known about this grape, but it is the most-cultivated in the area.
Winemaker Zorik introduced the wine and explained that Rind has evidence of winemaking back to 4,000 BC. He mentioned the loss of winemaking culture as the Soviets insisted on Armenia producing brandy.
20,000 bottles are produced, ungrafted vines, fermentation in stainless steel with ageing in French and American oak. Dark purple with truffles, mushrooms and cigar; some yeasty pungency and dark fruit. Mid-palate of blackberries and vanilla custard, grippy firmness with orange zest bitterness on the finish.
Jancis Robinson calls this a "gypsy wine" and gives it 17 points.
Gelsaia DOCG Piave Manalotte 2009 - Az. Agr Cecchetto, Veneto, Italy (Raboso Piave) Raboso means "acidic", or perhaps "tannic". 1,100ha and 7,000 bottles produced. Around 20% of the grapes are dried for 35 days, ripasso-style; ageing in a mix of new and used barrels. Almost opaque, complex nose of rich, dark dried mixed fruit and tobacco. Sweet ripe fruit, it feels big and grippy, full-bodied with ripe, red-tea tannins. Grippy finish with some liquorice aromas.
The Orange Wines
A term coined in 2004 for wines fermented in amphoras / kvevri / karasi etc.
Gringet Amphore 2010 - Domaine Belluard, Haute-Savoie, France (Gringet) nothing known about this grape, except that it is not Savagnin, as some have said. 15ha, fermented in amphoras with 2 months' skin contact using indigenous yeasts, 1,200 bottles. A slightly cloudy pale orange colour, sweetly pungent and spicy nose. Floral orange blossom and jasmine, lanolin texture, tannins and minerality, with some aniseed and persistence on the finish.
Kisi 2011 - Pheasant's Tears, Georgia (Kisi) 50ha, nothing known about the grape, 3,500 bottles made by American John Wurdeman. Fermented in kvevri, 100% natural wine, 6 months' skin contact. Bright golden orange, the colour of brandy; floral aromas with camomile, straw and herbs. Musky, smokey palate, chewy tannins and dried apricots. "Not for the fainthearted" was José's description of this wine.
The Orange wines were the most unusual and interesting here, but that comes more from production method than grape variety.
The Whites were generally pleasant and well-made, but as wines, I felt they generally lacked any compelling individuality.
The Reds then seemed to have the most innately characterful personalities and made virtues of their idiosyncracies, whilst also being recognisably contemporary wines.
Fans of obscure grape varieties may wish to check out this blog devoted to the oenologically unusual, Fringe Wine.
Jim Budd's photos of the event are here.
Other related articles
On Wine Grapes
De Martino at Circle of Wine Writers
Virginia Wine at Circle of Wine Writers
English Wine at Circle of Wine Writers
Greek Wines at Circle of Wine Writers: part 1 and part 2
Circle of Wine Writers - website, twitter
José Vouillamoz - twitter