A World Of Variety

The old saying goes “never judge a book by its cover”, but in the case of ‘Wine Grapes: A complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties’, the plain sleeve and scope couldn’t be much clearer.

1368 Varieties

Putting each and every known wine grape variety under the microscope and giving the appropriate cultural history and factual DNA make-up, this comprehensive pool of information is accessible to both the scholar and the interested novice.

The novice reader might, however, question where they’re going wrong.  Akin to a poorly titled mystery, the biggest surprise of the book has already been given away by the title highlighting that there are an amazing 1,368 different grape varieties out there to try.

A recent survey showed that of the varieties available, only the top 12 (so, less than 1%) were responsible for more than half of the worlds planted vines. That’s an extraordinary statistic; over half of the vine-planted world is given over to less than 1% of the available vine varieties.

Our hit-list contains such favourites as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir and Syrah (aka Shiraz) for your reds and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Muscat Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris for your white.  Any one of these varieties is now in the official ‘comfort zone’.

Clearly there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with any one of the above varieties, which are well-known, successful, highly adaptable and able to give consistent high-yielding results.  The point is, there is much mileage beyond.

Readers may now be starting to wonder if they could have been more inventive the last time they reached for another bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, but the blame isn’t entirely on your shoulders.  People do indeed go with what they know more often than not, but this is something that supermarkets are well-oiled towards.  They don’t want to take too many chances when it comes to the profits.  Familiarity is safety.

Wine producing countries new to the game (so, any since the late 70’s/early 80’s) are also well aware of trends and plant their vineyards accordingly.  They only want to produce the well-recognised international varieties that will guarantee sales.

This commerce comes at the expense of tradition.  Grape varieties adapt to their surroundings and the unknown indigenous varieties that have thrived forever are the ones that truly speak of the history and diversity of the country.  Spanish producer Torres is one going to amazing lengths to bring back long-lost varieties from extinction.

On the flip-side, the consumer also needs to have a little more interest when it comes to seeking out what is beyond the obvious.  If you can get past the funny and sometimes vaguely un-pronounceable names, there are absolute treasures to be found.

ASDA Wine Atlas

A good range that celebrates this diversity is the Wine Atlas range from Asda.  Dressed up in gorgeous labels evocative of the heyday of early 20th century travel, this is your ideal chance to try the lesser spotted Feteasca Neagra, Negroamaro, Grillo or Bobal.

If you’re feeling really competitive you may like to apply to the Wine Century Club.  Try 100 or more varieties, Google the club, fill in the entry form, and a nifty certificate will be on its way to you letting you know how unique such a feat is.

100 Club

This article was originally published in the April 2018 edition of The Ocelot.  For more of my articles, please click here.
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Wines of Greece (and my 200th variety tasted!)

Whilst on a recent trip to the Greek island of Zakynthos I made sure to stay in touch with the local wines which, after olive oil, is one of their major agricultural endeavours.

Although the shelves still have plenty of room given over to sweeter wines, the dry wines they produce are now a far cry from the oft-maligned ones that Greece was once famous for.

Winemaking in Zakynthos is focused on the central part of the island sweeping north to south through the fertile central plains.  There are five major wineries on the island, with Solomos and Callinico being the two most featured in Kalamiaki where I was staying.

Red grapes fare better in the soils and warm/hot climate here and so production is focused on red wines (or strong rosé wines).  Even though it isn’t viewed as the faux pas it once was, it did feel odd drinking red with the fresh local fish dishes in my quest to drink local too.

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Tsantali ‘Metóxi’ Limnio/Cabernet Sauvignon blend 2011, Mount Athos, Greece, 13%, ~£10

The Tsantali family have been producing wine since 1890, and this blend spends 8 months in large French oak barrels prior to seeing further ageing in bottle.

A nice deep dark ruby in colour, this wine had a full nose of cherry and herbaceous spice.  The palate comprised black berried fruit with much of the crunch of a typical Cabernet Sauvignon and toasty roasty woodiness.  In addition there were further spicy notes, a medium acidity and a smooth lengthy finish.

I’m not sure what the blending percentages are, but even though Limnio is listed first it’s either stylistically very similar to Cabernet or it forms the lesser part of the blend.  Regardless, Limnio is one to add to my list of new grape varieties tried (my 199th one to be precise) and Oz Clarke described it as “one of Greece’s most important red vines” so it’s a good one to tick off.

Augustos Avgoustiatis, Zakynthos, Greece, 12.5%. ~£4.00

This wine is made from the local Zakynthian Avgoustiatis grape variety which is so-named as it ripens early and is usually picked at the end of August.  This is another variety which I had never tried before and marks my 200th so I will be sending off the next ‘Wine Century’ form very shortly!

A vibrant youthful purple in colour, the dense nose was led by black cherry and also offered some confectionate sweetness.

The palate was a veritable compendium of sensations and I noted down coffee, chocolate, meat, blood, smoke and wood, all finished off with a lighter touch of vanilla!  It’s fair to say that this was a rustic earthy wine that was more about the tertiary darker characters than it was the vibrant fruit suggested by its appearance.  What fruits did appear were reminiscent of plums and damsons.

Also of note was a medium gripping tannin against a good fresh acid which probably made the whole blend come together, working well against the dark notes of the wine.

Googling this grape variety now shows that the resultant wines should be about clean fruit and of high quality, so I’d wager the cheap price tag on this one has fairly influenced this particular bottling and it wasn’t a typical example.  I didn’t even note down a specific vintage year which could also be indicative that one wasn’t offered up by the label.

Note: I did also try this variety again in a Solomos ‘Amoudi’ 2013 (blend with Mavrodaphne) wine so, although I didn’t write a tasting note for that wine, I’m still comfortable to tick it off the list.

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Estate Papaioannou Agiorgitiko 2006, Nemea, Greece, 13%, ~£12.00

I’ll also briefly mention this wine which, coming from the Agiorgitiko grape, I was convinced would take me to 201 varieties tried.  Alas, upon checking my notes I already seem to have tried it.

I’ll still give it a brief mention though as it was lovely and reminiscent of a good Pinot Noir balancing a lightness of touch with a good depth.  It even managed to win a Gold medal at the Thessaloniki International Wine Challenge back in 2009.

Hailing from Nemea VQPRD AOC and coming from a 40 hectare plot of vines, the wine was a light red in colour and full of redcurrants and cherry on the palate.  Clear wood, light vanilla, pepper spice and a hint of chocolate blended with a fresh acid rounding out a well realised wine.

Even though I couldn’t add this grape variety to my list, the quality of this bottle will remind me for some time to come that I’ve definitely tasted it.  Lovely stuff.

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Member 1,555 – A variety of varieties – #MWWC20

The following essay is my submission for this months Wine Writing Challenge.

mwwc logo

Just over a year ago, whilst idly browsing wine sites on the internet, I saw something that made me bristle with excitement – ‘The Wine Century Club’ (http://www.winecentury.com).  Listed as a fun and adventurous approach to trying new wines and creating a record of your vinious experiences, the club was set up by Steve De Long of the De Long winery, and was open to anyone who has tried at least 100 different grape varieties.  As I write this essay, it has over 1,600 members worldwide.

Researching what it was all about and when it was set up, my enthusiasm was slightly dulled by reading comments from people who didn’t seem to understand why you would participate.  They were eager to point out that there was little reason as you didn’t really learn anything from the process and that there was no way that you could recall every variety that you had ever tried.  They went on, stating that even if you took the most meticulous of tasting notes, the fancier or rarer varieties were likely to be miniscule parts of a blend and therefore unable to be singled out as having been ‘tasted’.  Whilst these are valid points, I stuck to my reasoning that it encourages you to broaden your palate, actively search for something new to try, and I made a vow to actively study up on any new ‘finds’ that I may make in the process.  In addition, aside of it being another way to make wine drinking fun, it was a challenge, and challenges are meant to be met.

I set about starting my list.

There are multiple tiers of membership (up to 500 varieties tried!), but when you go for your first 100 varieties you don’t need to list the specific bottle you have tried.  Indeed the whole structure of the club is based on the honour system, in that you’re only fooling yourself if you cheat.  May the wrath of Bacchus curse your palate, as the entry form states.

I went through the provided list of varieties, checking off the ones that there was no doubt that I’d drunk at some point – Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, Pinot, Riesling etc.  When switching between bottles in regular drinking it probably feels like you are trying a lot more different varieties than you actually are, and my list petered out at somewhere around 40 different types.  Where could I go next?

Thankfully as a diploma student of the WSET (Wines & Spirits Education Trust) I had spent multiple weeks in a classroom environment trying flight after flight of wine, and part of the whole point was to ensure that you were well acquainted with a wide variety of styles and tastes.  To further aid the learning process you were expected to take detailed notes and thankfully I still had mine.  Scores more varieties hit my list and took me well over my 100 variety target, and I was able to start fleshing out my lists with the actual producers and vintage details which added more legitimacy to my application.  Even allowing for things like disputes from synonyms (Zinfandel and Primitivo, for example) I had enough to join the club, and so I sent off my form.  A good month later (the club is based in the US and I am in the UK) I was the proud recipient of a splendid certificate, and happy in the knowledge that I was only one of 30 people in the UK (who have participated, obviously) to have reached the 100 mark.  Well, I was happy for a second, and then I was already working out how to reach the next rung up.

Trying 200 different varieties was a daunting thing, but this made me think all the harder about the task at hand.  I dusted off the tasting notes from my wine club purchases which added a few more ‘off the beaten track’ varieties to the list, but it was time to up my game.  In a moment of serendipitous timing, wine magazine Decanter announced that they would be hosting their first ever Mediterranean Wine Encounter, bringing together producers from stalwarts France, Italy and Spain, as well as up and coming countries like Israel, Croatia, Turkey and Slovenia.  Looking through the event catalogue my eyes were alight at the number of varieties that were featured that I had never even heard of – Pavlos, Goustolidi, Callet, Krassato – and needless to say, I booked my ticket there and then.

I was now up to about 170 varieties when I hit upon the fact that, whilst exploring these far flung places making wine, there were plenty of English (aka Germanic) varieties that I hadn’t even tried.  I set about scheduling up visits to numerous UK wineries (which you can read about in some of my earlier blogs).  This added a few more obscure ones to the list – Rondo, Kerner and Huxelrebe to name just three, and my list now stands tantalizingly close to the all-important figure of 200 varieties tasted.  I now actively (and excitedly) scan the supermarket shelves and wine lists online or in restaurants, looking to add to my expanding collection.

As Christmas approaches, wine season kicks in to gear here in the UK and I have several tasting events lined up over the coming weeks.  Here’s hoping that they have a few new varieties to try alongside the usual suspects!  The whole experience has been tremendous fun for me – why not give it a try for yourself?

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