Trends in Wine: What’s Old is New Again
In the wine world, when Jancis Robinson talks, people drink.
Robinson is renowned as the wine guru behind reference tomes like "The World Atlas of Wine" and "The Oxford Companion to Wine and the columnist for the Financial Times. At the recent New York City Wine & Food Festival, Robinson led a riveting session on what she termed unusual grape varieties that typify an ongoing trend in wine to re-visit traditional grapes in their historical homes around the world.
"Winemakers are recuperating varieties from where they happen to be and producing more transparent, expressive wines that convey the spirit of the vineyard," she said.
With more than 10,000 grape varieties, it's not difficult to find obscure vines. So Robinson selected seven grapes from among the 1,400 or so she's determined to be in active, commercial cultivation around the world.
Greece, South Africa and Slovenia
Greece is one of the oldest wine-producing countries, with evidence dating back more than 6,500 years. While varietals like Assyrtiko may be more commonly available here in the United States, Robinson is starting to see Greek winemakers investing more in other native grapes such as Moschofilero with a bright, floral profile. We tasted the 2012 Nasiakos Moschofilero from its home in Mantinia, Greece. Produced at higher elevations that make it difficult for the grape to ripen, the Nasiakos was quite delicate yet very aromatic and citrusy. At 11 percent alcohol, it was easy to drink and a natural to sip or enjoy with seafood and other light dishes.
South Africa: Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc
While admittedly not obscure varietals, Robinson called out Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc as grapes to watch. With roots in France’s Loire Valley, these grapes aren’t exactly new. But they are undervalued and, says Robinson, under-appreciated.
The sample wines both came from South Africa, where Chenin Blanc has been grown for hundreds of years and where it was known as Steen (now gone out of fashion). We tried the 2012 Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc (a very typical Chenin with floral honeysuckle aromas) and the 2009 Raats Cabernet Franc, a fascinatingly complex expression of the grape with profound smoky, cigar box aromas and a juicy, herbal and peppery taste.
"When it’s great, it’s just sort of spectacular," she said of the Raats. (I noticed it was the one wine she didn’t spit.)
Slovenia was one of the first countries behind the Iron Curtain to re-enter the global wine market. The western region of Brda shares many attributes of its neighbor, Italy’s Friuli region, including the Rebula grape, which is known as Ribolla Gialla in Italy. The 2011 Edi Simcic was deep yellow in color and a bit tangy in flavor with a sharp, acidic finish. It had been aged in French oak with a bit more skin contact than is common in white wines, making it an unusual find.
Chile, Montenegro and Spain
With backing from many French and French-trained vintners, Chile has emerged as a New World wine force. Until recently when it was supplanted by Cabernet Sauvignon, Pais was the unofficial national red-wine grape of Chile. It was thought to have been brought to Chile via Peru from Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.
The 2010 Chilcas Single Vineyard Pais from the Maule region spent 14 months in French oak to bulk up the grape’s naturally low tannins, and its moderate acid made it easy drinking if somewhat rustic.
Just south of Croatia, Montenegro is in the nascent stages of exporting its wines outside its borders. The Vranac varietal is a close relative of Zinfandel, and the 2010 Plantaze Pro Corde lived up to its ancestry. Big, dark fruit dominated the nose and palate, while a spike of chalky tannins resolved smoothly on the finish.
"That’s a proper wine, made with care and love and craftsmanship," Robinson said.
The last red on the tasting sheet was the Mencia grape, a 2007 Pittacum from Bierzo in northwest Spain. Originally believed to be Cabernet Franc, Mencia is instead the same as the grape known as Jaen in neighboring Portugal’s Dao Valley. This sample was a little soft and mellow, with no perceptible oak despite spending eight months in a mix of French and American oak barrels.
More than ever, a global market has opened doors to new wine regions, enabling smaller producers to sell their wines abroad and find new audiences. It’s also an exciting time to seek out and enjoy new wines from countries new and old.
"The great thing about wine," Robinson said, "is that even after 38 years of writing about it, I’m always learning more."