A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Torbato - Alghero, Sardinia, Italy

It's been awhile since we visited the isolated and unique island of Sardinia in Italy.  A little over a year ago we took a look at the Monica grape grown there and took a brief look at Sardinian wine in general.  I mention in that post that Sardinia is home to a handful of unique varieties, which should make it fertile ground for me, but it can be difficult to find wines made from these grapes.  Part of it is just low production.  Though Sardinia is the second largest island in the entire Mediterranean, it only ranks 15th among Italian regions in terms of total wine production.  Further, a lot of the wines that end up on US shores are made from some of the less unique grapes grown on the island, like Carignan or Cannonau, which is just the local clone of Grenache.  I do occasionally come across something interesting, though, and today's post is focused on one of those finds.

Before we can talk about Torbato, we need to talk a little bit about the history of Sardina.  Sardinia is currently a part of Italy, but that hasn't always been the case.  While the occupational and political history of Sardinia is long and complex, there is one era of Sardinia's history that seems to have more viticultural importance than any other.  In the 15th Century, the Kingdom of Aragon, which was located in what is now southeastern Spain, successfully conquered Sardinia and brought it under rule.  In 1479, King Ferdinand II of Aragon married Isabel of Castile, who was Queen of the Kingdom of Castile and León.  This marriage essentially unified the various Kingdoms of Spain into a single political entity under a common monarch.  This meant that Sardinia was now a part of Spain, and it remained a Spanish territory until 1708, when it passed into Austrian hands.  It pinballed between various European powers until 1861, when it joined the newly formed Kingdom of Italy.

It is thought that many of the grapes currently grown on Sardinia were brought to the island at various times throughout Spanish rule.  Grenache and Carignan are both thought to be ultimately Spanish in origin, as is the Monica grape we examined previously.  Torbato is thought to share this same kind of geographical heritage, though the evidence for this seems to be mostly anecdotal rather than scientific.  I've not been able to find any studies linking Torbato to any Spanish grapes either directly or familially and most sources qualify their statements of Spanish origin with words like "purportedly" or "supposedly."  The grape does have a link to the European mainland, though, as it was once grown widely in the Roussillon region of southern France under the name Tourbat or Malvoisie de Roussillon (though it is not related to any of the other members of the Malvasia family as far as I know).  The theory of a Spanish origin for Torbato seems to rest on the fact that Roussillon was also under the rule of the Kingdom of Aragon for awhile and so the grape (along with Grenache, Carignan, Monica and others) must have been disseminated to both Sardinia and Roussillon from Aragon itself at some point.

Tourbat has been virtually eliminated from the vineyards of France today and it looked like Torbato was destined to meet the same fate a few decades back.  The problem didn't seem to be quality, but rather than the vine had some unusual characteristics that made it troublesome to maintain.  The primary problem was that the stems on the vine aren't very strong, so as the grapes ripened and got bigger and heavier, they had a tendency to fall right off the plant.  If the grapes fell off before they were fully ripe, then they weren't much use to the growers.  If the growers weren't able to retrieve the grapes from the ground soon enough, then the grapes rotted and were a total waste.  Further, the grapes themselves have a lot of fibrous material within the pulp which limits the amount of juice you can get from each berry.  This means that the juice yields from each vine are lower than for other vines.  The low yields coupled with the viticultural demands were too much for most producers and the grape headed slowly for extinction until Sardinian producer Sella & Mosca stepped in.

Recognizing that the grape was in trouble, the winery made a concerted effort to not only save their old vine plantings of Torbato but also to buttress them with new plantings.  They claim to be the only winery on earth growing Torbato and making wines from it, and they might be right.  Sella & Mosca's origin story for Torbato has it that it is ultimately from "the Aegean," which I'm assuming means Greece, and that it was taken from there to the coast of southern Spain by the Phoenicians before being taken from Spain to Sardinia by the Spanish a few hundred years down the line.  They seem to be the only ones making a claim for an ultimate Greek origin for Torbato, and they do so without giving any kind of evidence, so I'm going to take it with a fairly substantial grain of salt.  Sella & Mosca's vineyards are within the Algehro DOC which is located around the town of Alghero in the northwest corner of Sardinia.  The Alghero DOC allows a variety of different grapes, including Torbato, and merely stipulates that any wine labeled varietally must contain at least 85% of the stated variety.

Sella & Mosca offers a handful of different Torbato wines, including a sparkling Torbato, but the one that I was able to find was the 100% Torbato "Terre Bianche," which is named for the white limestone soil that the grape is planted on.  I picked up a bottle of the 2009 "Terre Bianche" from my friends at Brookline Liquor Mart for about $22.  In the glass the wine was a fairly deep lemon gold color.  The nose was reserved with aromas of red apples, pear and pineapple fruit along with something a bit nutty and a trace of vanilla (about 30% of the juice is aged in older oak barrels for four months).  Some people say that Torbato has a characteristic smoky aroma and flavor, but I didn't really get any of that.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  There were flavors of lemon, green apple, ripe apple and pear fruit with a hint of toasted almonds and a chalky finish.  Overall it was tart and zippy with just a hint of oak to it, but not much.  It was a nice wine, but is difficult to justify at over $20 a bottle.  Rarity has its price, I suppose.

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