Missing in action

With wine being such an everyday commodity, I find it fascinating that there’s the prospect of trying a magical elixir that we may never have been able to taste. The quest to taste the mythical ‘untainted’ pre-Phylloxera wines is something of a holy grail for both wine professionals and amateurs alike but, as time goes on its less and less likely that the opportunities will arise. There is an easy way, however, of getting a piece of the action when it comes to rare wine.

Something becoming increasingly common is the resurrection of lost or believed extinct grape varieties. In a market that probably doesn’t need another Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, searching out these obscure varieties can be a clear path to creating a unique wine that really stands out. For me the quest conjures up images of an Indiana Jones type character searching around distant fields in forgotten towns – perhaps talking to old locals in the hope that one of them remembers an elderly man who once had a vineyard. Now this may sound either dramatic or romantic (or both), but with the wine industry going through several reboots due to issues like Phylloxera or prohibition, the world markets stopped and started. This meant that plantings were grubbed up or even abandoned, and it’s finding these forgotten outposts that is the gateway to tasting wine from another time.

A book entitled ‘The Wild Vine’ by author Todd Kliman follows the near extinction of the Norton grape variety, which hailed from the US state of Virginia. Once upon a time at the 1873 Vienna convention, a bottle of Norton was awarded the very grand sounding award for ‘Best red wine of all nations’. In spite of this, fate had a different idea and Norton was forgotten. It was re-discovered in 1965, and with the persistence of grape crusader Jenni McCloud, it has come back from the brink and is now considered to be the only American vine variety good enough to make premium wine.

Legendary Spanish wine producer Miguel Torres is also striving to rediscover lost vines. As part of a caretaking exercise to respect and understand the tradition and history of his region, Miguel began placing advertisements in the local Barcelona press asking if anyone knew of any obscure varieties being made in vineyard outposts. Fast forward to today and Torres lays claim to have resurrected 45 grape varieties from obscurity since 1984. Certainly the last couple of times I’ve tasted through their ranges at wine fairs, they’ve included some weird wonders such as Querol, or the Samso and Garro varieties blended in to their Grans Muralles.

Now you may be thinking that this is all very well, but you’re unlikely to bump in to any of these grape varieties with ease and be able to taste them. You may be surprised then, to hear that there are some grape varieties saved from near extinction that are widely available in any reasonable supermarket selection. Potentially you may even have a bottle of them in the house now!

Viognier is a grape hailing from the Northern Rhone in France, and whilst today it is common (France had 4,395 hectares (10,869 acres) given over to Viognier in 2009), it’s astonishing to think that as recently as 1965 plantings had dwindled to just 14 hectares (35 acres). That’s roughly the size of 27 football pitches, and could have been 100% wiped out by just one bad frost or serious hail shower. The Viognier vine has a tendency to suffer from coulure (the failure of grape development following flowering) and was prone to providing low yields, and so many farmers simply gave up and moved on to easier to handle varieties. To see its’ resurgence is remarkable, and it’s now produced across the globe, faring well in diverse regions such the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

And then there’s Carménère. This Bordeaux variety disappeared following the outbreak of Phylloxera (for the same reasons as Viognier), and was thought lost forever. Thankfully it was later discovered thriving in Chile where it was mistakenly thought to have been Merlot.

Incidentally, whilst some regions do have smatterings of plantings that managed to escape Phylloxera, as Chile is surrounded by either desert, sea or mountains, it’s one of the few wine producing countries not to have seen the Phylloxera outbreak. As the Bordeaux varieties were imported from France before they themselves suffered from Phylloxera, Chile still grow grapes on ungrafted vines, and therefore they are probably your best bet today of trying a ‘pre-Phylloxera’ wine. Obviously production methods, wine style and all sorts of other aspects have changed over the years, so I only mention it with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Everyone loves an underdog story, and whenever I see or get to taste a Viognier or Carménère I tend to go for it. It reminds me that I may not have had the opportunity to do so, if things had been only slightly different.

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The ‘Lost’ wine region

For some time now I’ve been intrigued by the ‘Kimmeridgian Chain’ – numerous vineyards set within a belt of distinct soil (AKA Terres Blanches), that diagonally cuts its’ way across northern France (see picture below). The belt itself is a by-product of a geological feature known as the Paris basin – plates of land staggering progressively inwards. As part of this sagging process, a defined strata of land became exposed between two layers; an older Jurassic era ridge of crushed marine deposits, comprising a hard limestone top on a chalky marl base (marl is composed of lime-rich clay and silt). The name Kimmeridgian is said to originate from the village of Kimmeridge in Dorset,England where there is a well exposed coastline of similar age and soil composition.

map b

The distinct soil mix brings differing attributes to resulting wines, even those produced in the same wine regions, but not within the belt. In some cases, different grape varieties are used to compliment the soil variation. This being the case, why were these unique vineyards simply swallowed up in to other wine regions? Regions that are many miles away, across land not used for viticulture. Given that the French invented the concept of terroir – that the place is so important to the wines it produces – and that the French have the most delineated wine/land appellation system in the world, why were these areas not grouped together by themselves to form a new region?

Within this belt we find:

– The Aube – The southern vineyards of the Champagne region

– Central Vineyards (AKA Sancerre, Pouilly, and several other village sites) – The eastern end of the Loire

– Chablis – The extreme northern part of Burgundy

Parent region has had little effect on the reputations of world famous places such as Sancerre, Pouilly (as in Fumé) and Chablis. This fame though, is largely down to the unique expressions of the crisp white wines produced, and this stems from the unique soil. Chablis sits 75 vine-free miles north of the Cóte de Nuits in Burgundy, and the towns of Sancerre/Pouilly are about the same distance away from the next vines in the Loire. With the Loire valley being over 170 miles in length you will naturally find numerous grape varieties, soil types, and even climatic influences, but Sancerre/Pouilly find themselves planted over to Sauvignon Blanc/Pinot Noir as opposed to the main Loire white/red varieties of Chenin Blanc/Cabernet Franc. As the soils along the banks of the river have a greater composition of rock/schist compared to the chain, different varieties thrive. Co-incidentally, Decanter recently ran a feature on the red wines of Sancerre, suggesting they were more Burgundian in style, and unlike any red you would associate with the Loire.

In Chablis, they may use the Burgundian variety of Chardonnay, but they produce a very different style of wine. Chablis is widely respected for its crisp mineral whites full of refreshing acidity, and linear precision. This is streets away from the archetypal Burgundian Chardonnay; a deep brooding body with creamy/buttery textures from subtle oak barrel influence. Again this comes from differing production methods (favouring Stainless steel as opposed to barrel), and the unique terroir – the Chardonnay grape working magnificently on the cold limestone and clay.

It’s a different story when we look at the Aube in southern Champagne, as they haven’t yet managed to find real fame on their own merit. Just over 100 years ago, The Champenois – notorious for protecting their brand – drew up their permitted production zones, and excluded the Aube on the basis that their grapes were of a second standard (they had no Premier or Grand Cru sites). The Government even went as far as passing a bill to that effect but, unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down well with Aube vignerons, and the rioting that followed in 1911 saw a worried government hastily annul the original bill. The Aube were finally officially admitted in to the region in 1927, but their role has simply been to provide the grapes to round out Champagne blends. If the Aube vignerons hadn’t persisted in the uphill battle to be part of a region that was so dismissive of it, could they have pushed harder with their wines, achieving better than just producing grapes suitable to only form part of a blend? Being mainly planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both key components of Champagne, but having the clay based soil of the Kimmeridgian chain instead of the deep chalk found elsewhere in Champagne, they’re capable of producing a Pinot more Burgundian in style. A feature late last year by US publication Wine Spectator suggests that wines from the Aube are on the up, but time will tell.

Should these villages have historically clubbed together and formed a mini-region of their own to produce world class Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot and Chardonnay to rival their Burgundian neighbour? Perhaps, due to the fact that quality will always shine through, maybe it hasn’t mattered in which region they sit. It’s interesting to ponder.

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I before E

I’m referring of course to ‘I before e, except after c’, the rhyme used to assist people with their spelling. Whilst a handy little mnemonic, it is largely ignored now as having too many exceptions to the rule to make it a useful learning tool (I’ve used one exception myself in my very first sentence). These ground rules are important though for establishing boundaries, and I came across one when progressing through my WSET Levels 2 and 3 (Intermediate and Advanced) that I thought I would share. In todays wine world it’s not a watertight rule by any means, and there are multiple exceptions, but for me it still plays a large visual part of how I structure the wine world, and certainly something I still use when helping others.

I’m talking about the 30-50 rule – that wine is produced in countries, and specifically limited to the areas of those countries, that lie between 30-50 degrees latitude in both the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere.

Wine Map   Map Source ThirtyFifty

When I’ve run tastings for small groups it’s been a particularly successful visual in helping people to work out where in the world they are drinking, as well as the what. I had maps printed on pages of A4 and laminated, and then set them out as placemats for each taster. They could use the blank side of the page to assess the appearance/colour of their wine, and then flip the page over to put it in context as to where it has come from. Is it cool climate or warm climate? Is the region near water or inland?

As you can see from the image above the majority of wine producing areas fall within these two bands, certainly all of the important historical ones. Two things are changing this though and may eventually consign the 30-50 rule to the bin.

Firstly is global warming, which is now allowing viticulture to take place in the outer limits of these boundaries. Only 50 years ago English wine was a dream away, and certainly not something that could ever be taken seriously. How times have changed, and just the rise of a degree or two has enabled winemaking to move north in to southern England (and also parts of northern Germany). There isn’t enough warmth yet to successfully ripen red grapes to any depth – some varietal wines exist but they are far outnumbered by their white counterparts, and the red grapes are better utilised in sparkling wine. Many of these red grapes won’t be familiar, being either hybrid or Germanic varieties, but the most famous red is Pinot Noir which, liking a longer cooler climate takes well here. It also thrives in northern France, being a key component in Champagne and the red grape of Burgundy.

Secondly, progressive winemaking is continually changing the production methods and vintners have an armoury of tools to use in a given circumstance. If you head back to the decades leading up to the 1980’s it wasn’t unusual to see a split of harvests something like 3 vintages per decade being rated as poor, 3 years rated as good, 2 as great and 2 as outstanding. These days you are unlikely ever to see wines rated below good. Technology allows such constant intervention in every step of the winemaking process that you can disperse storm clouds using iodine flares or utilise temperature controls in warmer climates. The younger breed of tenacious winemakers, producing in many countries (Chile, for example) where winemaking has no tradition handed down through generations, have no rules to bind or limit them. They’re continually taking winemaking further or higher, looking for that unique new mix of climate, soil and grape variety that will create a unique selling point (USP).

As things progress, I hope that the map visual with its two bands will continue to be used, even with its inaccuracies. For me, it limited what I viewed at the beginning of my wine studies as the unlimited number of wines that existed in the world. Sainsbury’s sold different wine to Tesco, who sold different wine to Marks & Spencer. Multiply that by the number of merchants, regions, producers and individual lines/brands, and you had something that was frankly un-fathomable.

Conversely, it was a map of the whole world that allowed me to put things in to perspective.

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TUMLA and other abbreviations…..

A few years back I saw an invitation in my Majestic wine mailing for an evening learning about wine. At the time I was sitting my WSET Advanced certificate and so already had a bit of a head start but, eager to fill in any blanks, get a different perspective and never one to turn down a free tasting, I signed up.

It was an intimate affair – only 8 of us together for 90 minutes, which naturally enabled a little bonding and chatting with the other people on the course. What sticks in my mind was being able fill in a few blanks for one of the ladies there who was confused with her French white wines, particularly Chablis and Sancerre. To enable her to recall with ease the character of each wine I passed on something that I’d learned – The CH at the start of Chablis means it is the CHardonnay grape that you are drinking, The SA at the beginning of Sancerre meant it was SAuvignon Blanc.

At the entry level stages of wine appreciation you don’t need to necessarily know whether it’s a Burgundy or Loire you are drinking, and all that entails in terms of latitude, grower differentials and the rest. It is more about rationalising why you like what you like, and it does help those awkward social moments when you meet someone who says that they don’t drink Chardonnay, but will happily glug a Chablis. The lady at the tasting was genuinely amazed at that titbit of knowledge in an easy to remember way, and I have never forgotten the importance of using abbreviations when trying to recall detail.

This visual/mnemonic link has been well utilised when trying to learn languages and, as a student working to complete his WSET Diploma, this is an essential exercise. The sheer amount of countries, regions, grapes soil types, weather influences, vintner influences you have to recall and reason is truly mind boggling.

These abbreviations have been particularly useful to me when recalling the wine regions of both South Africa and Italy. For South Africa I always now think of music – not the vibrant local offerings, but of my CDs and the PRS (Performing Rights Society). Whenever I see a blank map of the south western tip of Africa, I can see CDs working their way up the western coast (Constantia, Durbanville, Swartland), and the PRS (Paarl, Robertson, Stellenbosch) in a little clockwise circle just to the east of PRS. For me, being interested in music, abbreviations like PRS are familiar but they could also work equally well for someone interested in, for example, the Physiotherapy Research Society.

Italy, with its 20 regions all producing wine of various levels and volume is another one I needed to recall. The country covers some 10 degrees of latitude and is split for the wine world in to the north, the central and the south regions. North for me is PLV LEFT, an easy way to recall Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto in the centre, followed by Liguria, Emilia Romagna, Friuli, Trentino/Alto Adige forming an anti-clockwise semi-circle around them. Valle D’Aosta gets an honorary mention in the top North West (not a major region and not on syllabus I believe). For the central regions I recall TUMLA (Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, Lazio, Abruzzo), and the south is CCSSBP (or 2xC, 2xS, British Petroleum) for Campania, Calabria, Sicily, Sardinia, Basilicata and Puglia (again, Molise gets an honorary mention, but there’s not too much wine activity there).

Whilst you obviously still need to put in time learning the details for each one of these regions/countries to fulfil the recall, and these abbreviations certainly don’t cover all the important regions in many areas, using abbreviations is definitely a learning technique that I would recommend.  Tailoring them to something that means something to yourself personally is the key and will help you out of a potentially tight restaurant spot, or under exam conditions.  At the very least, it will also improve your geography.

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