The lesser-known grape is not to be dismissed.
WINE professionals have a healthy appreciation for the grape. It is after all, from grape juice that wine folks make their living. Yet even after years of learning and tasting all types of wine, it never fails to amaze me that ever so often, I’d stumble upon a grape I never knew existed, yet could be turned into fine wine.
Just this year, I discovered a host of Italian grape varieties. It was at Vinitaly, the annual Italian wine fair, that I came across some wines of the Marche region (a neighbouring region to Tuscany, located on the eastern side of Italy, facing the Adriatic sea).
At a booth I tasted like what seemed to combine the tastes of a Chardonnay with a Sauvignon Blanc. Upon closer examination, I was delighted to have encountered the indigenous Pecorino grape of the Marche region. The Poderi Capecci San Savino “Ciprea” Offica DOC Pecorino certainly had ripe pear aromas on the nose, but finished with flavours of lime peel and grapefruit. Delicious and so surprising!
Further reading revealed that this white grape is also grown in the regions of Abruzzo, Umbria and Lazio in Italy and still has to gain recognition there too.
More well-known from the Marche is the region’s most famous white wine varietal – the Verdicchio. This grape was probably named after the slight green/yellow hue (verde or “green”) that wines take on when made. As an important wine of the region, it has been classified as a Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC). Two famous wines are the Verdicchio di Matelica DOC and the Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC.
A Borgo Paglianetto “Vertis” Verdicchio di Matelica DOC 2008, grown inland and on chalky soil revealed itself to be an intense wine with floral, almond and acacia notes. In contrast, another Verdicchio, the Vallerosa Bonci “San Michele” Verdicchio dei Castelli Jesi Classico Superiore DOC 2008 (from the Castelli Jesi region near the sea), was delicate in the nose yet had mouth-filling flavours of pear, peach, hazelnuts and stone fruit.
A third producer, Garafoli showcased several different tasting Verdicchios – what more could a Verdicchio novice have asked for?
One was a Podium Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC Classico Superiore 2008 – made from Verdicchio harvested from low-yielding vines, grown on clay. The wine, the result of low temperature ferment in stainless steel with lees contact was brimming with florals, white fruits, and was rather complex with nuances of cookie crumbs and butter with a smooth texture. The second wine was a Serra Fiorese Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC Classico Riserva 2006. This wine was layered and hinted of butternut pumpkin and orange peel, not least because the wine had been aged in wood. I could easily have enjoyed the former Verdicchio with seafood whilst the more complex, wood-aged Verdicchio, I thought, would make a good partner for grilled meats.
About a month later, when visiting Spain for the Fenavin Spanish wine fair, I came across another host of interesting varietals, from the Canary Islands, no less.
At a stand, I was surprised to find that vines had been growing in these isolated islands from about 500 years ago – introduced by a Portuguese man called Fernando de Castro. In these islands, the main varietal is Malvasia. This white grape is made into a sweet wine and is exported to the US, Britain and Northern Europe, as well as the Portuguese and Spanish colonies in Africa.
Shakespeare must have surely tasted the Malvasia grape for in The Merry Wives of Windsor, he writes about “ the famed Canary Sack” (sack in the old-world name for fortified Malvasia).
Today, the Canary Islands, located off the west coast of Africa with a sub-tropical climate, is home to no less than 11 DO (denominación de origen) wine-producing areas with very unique indigenous grapes.
Five are on the island of Tenerife. I tasted a Suertes del Marques “La Solana” wine – made from the local grape called Listan Negro, growing in the La Orotava area of Tenerife. It amazed me with a nose that was intense with red fruits, pepper, chorizo spice and meat. The tannins were fine and the wine finished long. Another wine, the El Esquilon, from the same winery impressed with its taste of minerals, mixed spices and small red fruit characters. The structure and presentation of this wine was as good as many a fine, pedigreed wine. This wine was made from 70% Listan Negro and 30% Tintilla. Tintilla is yet another indigenous grape of the islands.
At another stand, I came across yet another Spanish grape called the Mencía. I was told that this is another ancient variety that is found only in the north-western part of Spain. The grape is thriving in the small sub-region of Bierzo, where Romans first began cultivating vines in Spain, thousands of years ago.
A Martinez Yebra “Canes Tinto”, made without wood ageing, tasted delicious with red fruit flavours, sweet tannins and a savoury finish. Next it was another estate’s wine called Casar de Burbia Tebaida. This Mencía had currant flavours allied with cola and sour plums and a broad, elegant finish.
A Bodegas Estenfania Bodegas Tilenus 2005 showed that with some ageing, Mencía reveals lovely tertiary characters of leather balanced with sticky tannins and sweet fruit. No wonder Mencía wines are fast developing a following amongst the wine cognoscenti. For smart wine collectors in the know, turning to lesser grapes like Mencía are proving equally fruitful, both in terms of investment and appreciation!
Edwin Soon is a qualified oenologist and has run wine shops and worked as a winemaker in various countries. He now writes and teaches about wine around Asia.