December 31, 2011: My Top Grape Surprises of 2011
Instead of regaling you with a tried and true list of the "best" wines I had last year, I've decided to go in a different direction in this recap. If you've visited my site enough, you know I'm a diehard Rhone-lover. About 60% of my cellar is filled with the red and white grapes associated with this region. However, I am also a devoted oenophile who loves to learn and with the whole world now into winemaking there's so much out there to experience. What I found was some unusual grape varieties that really turned my head, that were interesting in a whole new and delicious way.
Of course, being somewhat connected helps. I was fortunate this year to be invited to several amazing tastings from regions that I had never seriously delved into before. Big thanks to Austria Uncorked, the Loire Valley Wine Association and Viva Vino LA for letting me discover the vast array of seriously good wine coming from your parts of the world. So if you see any of these grapes on a wine list or a shelf, take a chance. You might just find a new favorite variety.
WHITES – I'm a big fan of white wine, but you have to drink a lot of mediocre bottles to find ones that truly shine. Most of these varieties can be found for around $15-20, sometimes less, and if they are bothering to import them, they are generally going to be worth the dough. The specific wines I had are probably not going to be available. Don't fret. Just try ones you find.
Gruner Veltliner – Before you get on my case about including this grape, just let me say that until this past Spring I had only had it once or twice in the decade I've been pursuing wine knowledge. All I have to say, is Man, I really missed the boat on this one. After tasting through about 20 different versions at Austria Uncorked, I am jumping full throttle on the GV bandwagon. They may not be as fruity as I normally like, but the spice and herbal qualities make this variety stand out...in a good way. This is Austria's premier white wine and they are really onto something. The less expensive versions (under $20) aren't necessarily going to knock your socks off, but go up a few bucks and you'll be surprised by how good this grape can be.
[ 2009 Veyder-Malberg Kreutles – $27 ]
Melon de Bourgogne – Better know as Muscadet, this is a grape variety from the Loire region of France and one that is fairly well-known for it's supposedly perfect pairing with oysters. I've had bottles sporadically over the years, yet I have never been overly impressed. It's a light-bodied, highly-acidic wine with moderate aromatics with flavors of citrus and slate and not much character. Until I tasted the 2009s. This was a slightly warmer vintage which gave all the versions I tried a more intense mouthfeel and deeper flavors, especially those aged sur lie. These aren't meant to be complicated or age-worthy, but the eight versions I got to try were all unique and made me reevaluate my opinion about this grape. If you like seafood, grab a few bottles of this vintage before it's all gone. You won't be sorry. A grape to take a chance on since most cost less than $15.
[ 2009 Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie – $13 ]
Posip – You know you're onto something way off the radar when the grape isn't even listed in Oz Clarke's Grapes and Wines book, which I thought had everything. (I can't even count the number of grapes listed. Well, I could, but who has that kind of time?) There's not much online about this variety either because it is mainly grown on the small island of Korcula in Croatia. Yes, Croatia is making wine – their grape-growing history pre-dates Rome – they just got a bit sidetracked in the 20th century due to wars and Communism. The last few decades have seen vast and quick improvement. Most of the grapes grown are indigenous, which means they don't taste like anything you've ever had before. Posip is a highly aromatic grape – think Sauvignon Blanc mixed with a bit of Viognier – with a big, creamy mouthfeel, citrus and stone fruits, honey and a hint of nuttiness from oak-aging. It was right up my alley – complex, fruity and just as good cold as it was at room temp. I wish I had bought two bottles. Thanks to Blue Danube Wine for introducing me to it. If you're interested in wines from Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary and Austria they are a company you need to get to know.
[ 2007 Toreta – $18 ]
Romorantin – This grape is so obscure it is only grown in the Cour-Cheverny AOC in the Loire Valley of France. It used to be more widely planted but has been undermined in the region by more popular grapes like Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. According to Oz Clarke's book (mentioned above), this grape is incapable of making decent wine. He called all the versions he had up until 2007 (the last update of the book) either dull or horrific. Personally I was entranced, but that's because the version I had was made by Francois Cazin, who is pretty much the only winemaker keeping this grape alive. He's a very skilled man if he can make such a lovely wine from a grape most other people consider useless. It was elegant and vibrant with bright fruit, a round mouthfeel, pleasant minerality and a finish that went on for days. The version I had is made as a demi-sec wine, but the sweetness was perfectly balanced and not the least bit obvious. While not overly expensive, it is very rare. Sorry. I had my glass at Lou on Vine. Lou loves the odd grapes so he may be able to hook you up.
[ 2008 Francois Cazin Cour-Cheverny "Cuv&ecaute;e Renaissance" $18 ]
Falanghina – Is an ancient white grape variety (7th Century BC) from the Campania region of Italy that is seeing a resurgence as of late. I had never heard of it before this past May, when I went to the Viva Vino tasting and now it's popping up on every wine Italian wine list I see. Probably because it's as inexpensive as Pinot Grigio, but has more flavor and finesse, in my opinion. Light-bodied, crisp and clean with citrus, apple and melon flavors with a hint of flowers on the nose. A great food wine with a summer salad or lightly-prepared fish or aperitif that will get the juices flowing. This is not going to knock your socks off, but the several versions I've had deliver quality at their price point. Plus it's a fun name to say...
[ 2010 Vesevo Beneventano – $16 ]
REDS – While version of wines made with these grapes aren't exceedingly rare, they are generally limited to one region, so I'm betting I'm not the only one who was unaware of them. I'm on the lookout now.
Zweigelt – Another fun name to say, this grape also comes from Austria and it that country's most planted red varietal. Probably because it's easy to grow. It's actually a cross between two other native grapes St. Laurent (a pinot noir derivative) and Blaufrankisch. After tasting versions of all three at Austria Uncorked, I just fell for their child, which delivered the best of both parents – a soft, bright, medium-bodied, earthy, peppery, berry-filled mouth of goodness. They are not the most complicated or age-worthy of red wines, but they aren't meant to be. If you're looking for a great everyday, food wine that has some real character without breaking the bank, give this grape a try. Though you'll have to go to a serious wine shop to find one. Usually retails for around $15-20.
[ 2009 Turk Im grossen Berg – $15 ]
Carmenere – I'm sure I've had other versions for this grape before, but it's been a long, long time. Though it began as a Bordeaux variety it is making its splash in the wine world coming from Chile where it was transplanted in the 19th century - with a good deal of Merlot. They are apparently very similar looking and only since the mid-90s have they been somewhat separated for good. I encountered this wine at City Sip Wine Bar. Was looking to be adventurous, "visit" a region that I hadn't had in a while. I was blown away. Just loved the ripe black berry and plum flavors that were perfectly united with the tobacco, black pepper and meat notes. A lush, mouth-coating blend of the sweet and savory. A wine that really got my attention at a price that's hard to beat.
[ 07 Vina Falernia – $15 ]
Sagrantino – Before December I had never heard of this grape, never mind had a glass. This little number comes from Umbria and has its own DOCG in Montefalco. It may be a rising player in Italy, but with so many indigenous varieties over there, it's hard to get noticed around the world. You're going to have to go to a wine shop with a large Italian section to get your hands on one of these babies, as not many are imported. It's known for being a very tannic grape, but better vinification over the last few years has tempered the bitterness and let the smoky, spicy, red berry flavors shine through. No worries for you "New World" haters, it still tasted very, very Old World, just with a mouthfeel and accessibility that I found enchanting. While not exactly a cheap wine, it is primarily only made in the village of Montefalco, so rarity is a factor, you can find them in the $25-$35 range. Not bad for a DOCG Italian wine.
[ 07 Colpetrone – $26 ]