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.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Garganega/Grecanico Dorato - Veneto and Sicily, Italy

I wasn't sure whether I was going to write about the Garganega grape or not.  It is the 11th most planted grape in Italy with nearly 30,000 acres devoted to it and is the star grape (making up at least 70% of the blend) in one of the most common white wines from Italy, Soave.  It's a grape right on the fringe of being fringe and I went back and forth about it for a long time.  I ultimately decided to write about it, though, because it turns out that Garganega is a really interesting grape with connections to a surprisingly large number of other Italian grapes.  I was also able to find some interesting wines made from it outside of the Soave region of the Veneto so I thought, what the heck, let's take a look at Garganega.

Garganega is one of the oldest grapes known in Italy.  Its first appearance in the literature dates to a 13th century work by Pietro de Crescenzi which says that it was cultivated around Bologna (in Emilia-Romagna) and Padova (in the Veneto) at that time.  It seemingly hasn't moved very much from this general area in the 800 or so years since de Crescenzi wrote his book since nearly all of the plantings of Garganega and nearly all of the DOC regions where it is approved for use are clustered in the Veneto with just a few in Lombardy, Trentino-Alto Adige and Umbria as well.  There's a little bit of twist to that story, though.  Some ampelographers noticed that Garganega looked an awful lot like a grape called Grecanico Dorato grown in Sicily, but nobody could quite figure out how or why the same grape would show up in such geographically disparate regions and nowhere in between.  Grecanico had been known and grown in Sicily for hundreds of years while Garganega had been known in northeastern Italy for longer than that so while the hypothesis of the two grapes' synonymy was intriguing, it remained just a theory for many years.

In 2003, an Italian research team conducted a study on vines from the Veneto to see if and how any of them were related to one another.  They tested three clones of each of fourteen different Veronese grapes, one of which was Garganega.  The team then took the DNA data they obtained from their Garganega samples and compared them to an exiting profile for Grecanico Dorato from another team's experiments and found that "these cultivars are highly related and most likely represent the same grapevine."  In 2008, another Italian team decided to look at the DNA from Garganega and Sangiovese and compare it to a wide range of grapes from all over Italy in order to see if they could find any interesting relationships.  They tested samples of both Garganega and Grecanico Dorato and found that the two vines were definitely identical.  This result confirmed a study done a year earlier (citation 1) that showed that not only was Garganega the same as Grecanico Dorato, but it was also the same as a grape called Malvasia de Manresa from Spain (which raises a whole bunch of interesting questions that I'm afraid I can't answer).  The vine is no longer cultivated in Spain, but there are still some vines in holding collections in Europe.

The most interesting findings in these last two papers had to do with the other grape varieties that had a close relationship with Garganega.  The team from citation 1 found that Garganega and another grape called Uva Sogra were the parents of Susumaniello, a red grape grown primarily in Puglia today.  They also found that Garganega has a likely parent-offspring relationship with Malvasia di Candia, Trebbiano Toscana and a few other grapes that I've never heard of before.  These results were confirmed in the 2008 study mentioned above and augmented by the discovery that Garganega also appears to have a parent-offspring relationship with Marzemina Bianca, Catarratto, Albana, Greco del Pollino and Empibotte.  The connection with so many different grapes throughout Italy makes Garganega one of the most important cultivars in the history of Italian wine grape evolution.  Though it is a very interesting question, I don't believe than anyone has given a satisfactory answer as to how the grape moved throughout the country of Italy to end up in two places so far apart, leaving only relatives in its wake.  It is thought that since Garganega is more closely related to the vines of the Veneto, it likely came from there originally before making its way south to Sicily, and that's as good an explanation as any, I suppose.

I was able to try a variety of wines made from Garganega/Grecanico from both the Veneto and from Sicily.  The first was the 2008 "Pico" from Angiolino Maule, which I picked up from my friends at the Wine Bottega for around $30.  This wine is 100% Garganega from Maule's vines in the Veneto.  The grapes are crushed and left to ferment in open vats without any temperature control for 2-4 days.  The wine is then moved to old (neutral) 1500 liter barrels for a year prior to bottling without any fining or filtration.  In the glass the wine was a hazy medium gold color.  The nose was fairly intense with aromas of ripe apple, white flowers, pineapple, honeysuckle, pear and grapefruit.  It was deep and wonderful, revealing something new with every sniff. On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity and just a touch of tannic grip.  There were flavors of ripe apple, honey, pineapple, apple cider, Meyer lemon, almonds and grapefruit.  This blows every Soave I've ever had completely out of the water.  It is a complex, fascinating wine that was an absolute delight to drink.  If you've given up on the Garganega grape because you've only had a few bland examples from Soave, let this bottle change your mind.

The second wine that I tried was the 2010 Planeta "La Segreta" ($15 retail) from Sicily.  This is a blended wine made from 50% Grecanico, 30% Chardonnay, 10% Viognier and 10% Fiano.  In the glass the wine was a medium lemon gold color.  The nose was moderately intense with aromas of pear, white peach, lemon peel, chalk and something faintly tropical.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  There were flavors of white grapefruit, cut grass, citrus peel, pear and ripe apple with a subtle stony minerality to the finish.  Overall, I found the wine sharp and snappy with a bit of fleshiness to it that helped to balance it out.  It was really citrusy and grassy and reminded me a lot of Sauvignon Blanc, which is one of the few grapes not in the blend at all.  It almost tasted a little under-ripe, which is surprising when you consider how much warmer Sicily is than the Veneto.  I thought it was a decent enough wine, but there wasn't too much in it to get me excited and it really just seemed flat and uninteresting after drinking the Pico.

The final wine that I tried was the Cornelissan Munjebel Bianco 6 from Sicily, which I picked up on clearance at the Spirited Gourmet for around $67.  I've written about Frank Cornelissan before, but his story is worth telling again.  In short, Frank Cornelissan is what happens when you extend the natural wine movement to its most extreme end.  His 8.5 hectares of vines consist of many different native Sicilian vines, inter-planted among one another, that are never sprayed and which are all harvested at the same time.  I don't know precisely what is in the Munjebel Bianco, but I've been told that the bulk of it is likely Grecanico with some Coda di Volpe, Carricante and Catarratto as well.  After harvest, the grapes are crushed and fermented in 400 liter terracotta vessels buried in the ground.  The skins and seeds are left in contact with the fermenting juice for up to a whopping 7-14 months for both red and white wines.  The wines are then pressed and returned to terracotta vessels to be aged "until several full cosmic cycles have passed" before bottling.  The vines are planted on a slope of Mt. Etna and his three different price points for his wines correspond to the altitude at which the grapes used for the wine are planted (the higher the altitude, the higher the price).  Munjebel is the middle tier, and the six refers to the fact that this is the sixth Munjebel white that Frank has produced.  The wines are not vintage dated, but savvy Cornelissan drinkers can tell which vintage a given wine is from the wine's name and its number.  I'm not one of those drinkers, so I have no idea what year this wine is from (though Jamie Goode over at the Wine Anorak says that it's 2009, and I suppose he would know).

Cornelissan's wines are bottled with no sulfur dioxide and with no fining or filtration at any step along the way.  When you look through the bottle at the liquid inside, I'll admit it doesn't look very appetizing as there are frequently both large chunks and fine cloudy particulates that float around inside the bottle at the slightest movement.  The wines can be a bit of a gamble since the lack of preservatives means that if the wine was stored improperly, the chance of microbial spoilage goes up considerably.  This is a sobering prospect for a bottle that costs $67 on clearance, and an even more sobering prospect for the $150 demanded for his highest-end bottling, the Magma.  I was sure to store my bottle carefully and also carefully poured it into my glass, where it was a hazy bronze color that was almost a little tawny.  The nose was moderately intense with aromas of cider, honey, caramel apple, toasted nuts and autumn spice.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with high acid.  The first descriptor I have in my notes is "crazy."  There was a slight tingle of CO2 followed by flavors of toasted nuts, unfiltered cider, golden apple, pear and pickle juice.  I've tasted only a handful of wines from Cornelissan and only drunk two full bottles of his wines, but their hallmark to me is the excellent balance between oxidation and bright, zippy freshness.  I have always found his wines fascinating and deeply interesting, but I understand that they are an acquired taste in a niche market.  I wouldn't pair this wine with any food at all.  It's the kind of thing that really needs to be experienced on its own.  It really demands the drinker's full attention and should be drunk slowly, over the course of several hours, so one can really see the wine evolve and devolve.  These aren't wines that I would want to drink every day, but when I do find myself with a Cornelissan wine open in front of me, it's always a memorable experience.

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