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Why stick with what you know when there are so many grape varieties to choose from? Simon Woods recommends some more unusual grapes and styles for autumn drinking
In the world of grape varieties, Viognier is a bit of a slapper. Where other grapes are slightly shy and need a little coaxing to show their true colours, Viognier is the one that isn’t afraid to be seen in a leather posing pouch or a sequinned bustier. It does need careful handling though. Pick the grape too early and it’s just another white wine; let it get too ripe and it turns into a wobbly caricature, gushingly ripe and oozing with vulgar amounts of peaches-and-cream flavour. But when a winemaker manages to restrain this exuberance, yet not eradicate it completely, the result is one of the wine world’s guilty pleasures.
You can find Californian Cabernet at under £10 a bottle, but mostly it will disappoint. However, spend a little more and you’ll see why it deserves its place in the pantheon of the world’s great wines. What you’ll then find are wines that at their best combine juicy black fruit with wilder, terroir-derived herbiness – think ripe Bordeaux with a Mediterranean accent. The capital of Cabernet is Napa Valley, which winds its way north from the top end of San Francisco Bay. Some wines are made in minute quantities and have such an avid following that they command prices on a par with – and sometimes in excess of – top classed-growth Bordeaux. However, decent examples can be found at much more affordable levels.
Earlier this year, I made a selection of Fifty Great Portuguese Wines for a tasting at the Portuguese embassy. Red wines formed the lion’s share of the selection, but it was the line-up of 10 white wines that proved to be the eye-opener for many of those attending. Just as with reds, Portugal has an intriguing selection of home-grown white grape varieties – Encruzado, Loureiro, Arinto, Antão Vaz and many more – that deserve a far wider audience. And where 10 years ago the more ambitious wines tended to be swamped by excessive oak, today’s whites are finer, fresher and far better balanced.
In its native climes of south-western France, Malbec is known for producing the sturdy, stubborn wines of Cahors, and in a few instances for adding punch and perfume to red Bordeaux. But take the grape south to the foothills of the Andes in Argentina, and Malbec reveals another, quite different, face. The exotic berry and violet flavours of the best Cahors remain, but the harsh tannins have melted away, to be replaced by a lush, warm richness. And since Malbec has been widely grown here for more than 100 years, there are plenty of ancient vineyards and equally venerable growers who have spent decades discovering the best places to plant the grape.
Where once there seemed to be little to the world of Spanish red grape varieties beyond the ubiquitous Tempranillo, today other varieties are making their impact felt. One that has been making waves in recent years is the Mencia grape, which is unique to the Iberian peninsula, and indeed is seldom seen outside the north-west corner – you’ll find it in the Dão region of Portugal as Jaen. Some say Mencia is a distant relative of Cabernet Franc; the earthy, tar-like characters in some wines do seem to support this. However, the wild ginger-and-sage-like perfume and orange-peel and berry fruit suggest another variety of French origin, namely Syrah. But whatever its parentage, Mencia is an intriguing grape, and growing numbers of producers are now exploiting its potential, especially in the DO of Bierzo.
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine - Autumn 2008