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lundi, 28 mars 2016

WHITE WINES WITHOUT INTERNATIONAL GRAPE VARIETIES (PART 2 OF 2)

CAN GREAT WINES BE MADE WITHOUT

INTERNATIONAL GRAPE VARIETIES?


 

 Claude Gilois

 

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An Assyrtiko vine on Santorini Island

WHITE WINES

 

In the absence of a precise definition of this category of grape varieties, I gave my own interpretation of this group in the previous article and identified seven varietals planted sufficiently worldwide and producing high quality wines. The Riesling was not included in this group as it only arrived in the 18th position on the grid established by the authors of the study on grape distribution worldwide. However, this varietal produces many highly qualitative wines in many parts of the world, both in the northern and southern hemispheres. It reigns supreme in Alsace and in Germany and also produces outstanding wines in Austria in the Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal regions, 50 kms northwest of Vienna on slopes with a high proportion of slate. It also performs extremely well on high altitude terroirs of the Clare and Eden Valleys in South Australia at Grosset and Henschke in particular, not to mention in Frankland River, Western Australia. It is gaining momentum in California and Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon has been successful in establishing it as a credible varietal. It also gives good results in New Zealand at Felton Road and Fromm in Central Otago, and at Craggy Range in Martinborough. It is therefore best to include it in our category of international varieties.

 

 

Herewith a few forgotten and overlooked grape varieties which make fine white wines. As with the reds, the list is not exhaustive.

 

PETITE ARVINE

 

Even if this varietal has affinity with some grape varieties of the Aosta Valley, it is today considered as a specific varietal from the Valais in Switzerland. It is a late ripening varietal which requires the best exposures on steep slopes, which produces its best results around the town of Fully where its presence has been recorded since 1602. In 1990, there were only 30 hectares left but today it covers 180 hectares. It is a fragile grape with high acidity and which can produce dry wines or with a few grams of residual sugar or even sweet (flétri). The words grapefruit, mandarin and rhubarb best describe its organoleptic characteristics. The best wines are undoubtedly made by the queen of the Valais viticulture, Marie Thérèse Chappaz, at the domain ‘La Liaudisaz’, but some fine wines are also produced by Benoît Dorsaz, Denis Mercier and in about 15 other domains.

 

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Marie Therese Chappaz

GRÜNER VELTLINER

 

This is the most cultivated varietal in Austria and it is a cross between Traminer (Savagnin) and Saint-Georges (St.Georgener-Rebe). Today, it spreads over 18,000 hectares and represents 33% of the grape varieties planted in Austria. It gives its best results in the regions where the best Rieslings are made (Wachau, Kempstal and Kamptal to northwest of Vienna) where it shares the sloping terroirs on slate and loess. On less prestigious terroirs, it gives wines that are more one-dimensional. Spices and pepper characterize wines made from this varietal. Jancis Robinson argues that in the best vineyards, in some years and with age the wines can show organoleptic characteristics that are close to Chardonnay.   It is in the Wachau that regulations are the most stringent as this region has its own classification, but the best producers from the other two regions have no reason to envy the Wachau’s producers as their wines are on a par. The best producers are Bründlmayer, Hitzenberger (richer style), Emmerich Knoll and Pichler (intermediate style) and Prager (elegant and mineral).

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Willy Klinger,musician, stage performer, actor and Managing Director of Austrian Wine Marketing Board (AWMB)

ASSYRTIKO

 

Santorini is an island known for its great beauty and its unique viticulture based mostly on the Assyrtiko grape variety. It is a volcanic island constituted mostly of schist and chalk interspersed with pumice stones. Archeological excavations have shown the existence of viticulture as early as the 17th century BC. This varietal is particularly sensitive to the wind that blows across the island for many days of the year. In order to reduce its effect on the grapes, vines are trained in a shape of a basket or ‘bird’s nest’, technically called ‘Gobelet en couronne’ and the bunches of grape are nestled in the basket formed by the wood of the vine. Some are the oldest vines found in the world and they can reach the age of 500 years. When they are about 100 years old, the wood is cut just above the root allowing the vine to regenerate and the process can be carried out several times until the plant degenerates and has to be uprooted.  Lack of water is also a major problem as the rainfall on the island is low especially during the maturation season. The water comes from the sea spray and the morning dew and gets trapped in the pumice stones allowing just enough water for photosynthesis to continue. Vines are not on rootstock and diseases of the vine are virtually absent. There are about 1500 hectares of vines on the island most of which are assyrtiko to which can be added some Athiri and Aidani.   The driest of the wine can be best described as telluric as the volcanism is so apparent it gives it a very mineral component. The characteristics of the soil can be toned down by a judicious maturation in wood, which increases the complexity of the wine without masking its minerality. The best producers are Hatzidakis, Gaia for the dry wines and Sigalas for the sweet wines known as vinsanto (one word) on the island.

 

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ALBARIÑO

 

This is the Galician name of this variety in northwest Spain in the region of Rias Baixas, but in Portugal, in the Vinho Verde region it is called alvarinho, but exclusively in the provinces of Monção et de Melgaço. Its name literally means ‘White wine of the Rhine) and for a long time it was thought that it was related to Riesling but today its relation with Savagnin is another option that is being put forward. It was a grape variety largely unknown outside Spain and Portugal   up to the late 1980s and Rias Baixas only obtained its DO in 1986. It is primarily Galicia, which put this varietal on the map of the best white grape variety in the world. It is a very thick-skinned varietal, which is highly resistant to the high rainfall in both Galicia and Vinho Verde due to the Atlantic influence. Too many vineyards are still trained in Pergola which tends to increase yields but the grapes give wines that are ample, rich and sometimes opulent that are redolent of peaches, apricots and almonds. The best wines have a very good keeping potential as the acidity of the grape is high and some producers now mature their top ‘cuvées’ in oak. In Vinho Verde, the wines tend to be lower in alcohol and have a greater drinkability, but are perhaps less profound than those of Rias Baixas. The best are Pazo de Senorans, Pazo de Barrantes in in Rias Baixas and Quinta de Soalheiro in Vinho Verde.

 

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It is not possible to close this chapter on albarino without mentioning its alter ego, Godello which came to the fore only a few years ago in particular with Rafael Palacios (Alvaro Palacios’s brother). It is a variety that does best in the Valdeorras region,which was extensively replanted with Godello in the 1970’s. It is also found in Ribeiro, Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo. It makes a wine with a fine structure, which is juicy and mineral and that ages well.  We shall see more of this grape in the years to come.

 

GARGANEGA

 

Considered for a long time as a third division grape variety as it was, in the 1970s, one of the main components of a wine called Soave which invaded Europe with such a poor quality that had much more to do with excessive yields than the quality of the varietal. It is the noblest white variety of the Italian provinces of Verona and Vicence and belongs to the Greci group that is found around Lake Garda. It is identical to the Grecanico Dorado found in Sicilia. The best come from the slopes of Soave Classico. Its aromas and flavors of citrus fruits, wild flowers, almonds and spices, can identify the grape. Today, the Soave appellation imposes that it contains at least 70% of Garganega, but the best Soave are made with 90% and sometimes 100% of the varietal. The best have a keeping potential of 20 to 30 years. It can also be vinified as a sweet wine under the name of Recioto di Soave. The best producers are Sando and Claudio Gini, Pieropan and Ca’Rugate.

 

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SEMILLON

 

This is a varietal that could pretend to the status of international grape variety if its production worldwide was not in constant decline. It is, of course, the emblematic variety of the Bordeaux region where it is often assembled with Sauvignon Blanc and its botrytised version produces some of the best sweet wines in the world. In France, the planting of Semillon has decreased from 30,000 hectares in the beginning of the 20th century to 15,000 hectares in 2008. It constituted more than 90% of the planting in South Africa in the 19th century, by 1822, it covered 93% of total vineyard plantings, but it has now dwindled to about 1%. However, together with the Chenin Blanc it makes some of the best wines in South Africa. To prove this, you only need to taste the exceptional Kokerboom from The Sadie Family Wines or the Semillon Reserve from Vergelegen not to mention Chris Alheit’s Semillon, a blend of 75% Semillon Gris and 25% Semillon Blanc, a unique blend that you could confuse with a ‘rosé’ wine.

 

Semillon was one of the first grape varieties planted in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales on sandy soil where it produces wines that are between 10.5-11.5% in alcohol in the warmest wine region of the world. It is also found in the Margaret River in Western Australia    and in the Barossa Valley in South Australia, but the alcohol level is much higher. As in France, its production is diminishing, Its place being taken by the ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc, a far less interesting varietal apart from those plantings on terroirs that are suitable (Loire, Styria in Austria and New Zealand, especially in the Marlborough region even though there are far too many wines that are not physiologically ripe there. But for the investor it is a dream varietal as it can be marketed a few months after picking and the largely uneducated customers like the grassiness (methoxypyrazines) associated with unripe grapes.

 

The very best Sauvignons Blancs are those where the identification of the varietal is difficult. For the Semillon, it is a different ball game as it is often assembled with Sauvignon and very often tastes more like Sauvignon Blanc than Semillon. Furthermore, pure Semillon is Cistercian with rough edges in early life, which makes it difficult to appreciate. Some of the best Hunter Valley producers do not release their Semillon before 5 years of aging in bottle; the best wines have a 30 to 40 year keeping potential. It the current context of immediate pleasure, one can easily see that the varietal is in danger.

 

The best French producers are well known and include the sweet wines from Château Yquem, Climens and Rieussec. The best dry version come from Château Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion. The best Australian Producers are McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant (Lovedale), Tyrrell's (HVD Reserve) in the Hunter Valley, Cullen in the Margaret River and Rockford and Grand Burge in the Barossa Valley. There also a small proportion of Semillon in Chile (also declining), in the USA (Washington States) and in New Zealand.  

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Hunter Valley Vineyards, one of the most  amazing (if not the most amazing) wine region of the world

        

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