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, September 26, 2012

Spergola - Emilia-Romagna, Italy

If you only looked up the Spergola grape in the Oxford Companion to Wine, you might think it was a little disingenuous to include it on a site focusing on unusual wines.  The OCW entry for Spergola reads in full: "occasional name for Sauvignon Blanc in the Emilia region of Italy."  The online version of the OCW is generally kept pretty up-to-date with the latest information on grape synonymies, homonymies and relations, especially since they've been working so hard on their upcoming book all about wine grapes, which is due out late next month, so you might be inclined to take their word for it regarding Spergola and move along.  If you've followed this blog at all over the past year or so, though, you know that that's not how I do things around here.  I don't care who says it, I don't ever believe that something is true unless I can at least find corroboration from other sources or, preferably (where applicable), scientific evidence that clearly demonstrates the truth or falsity of a given claim.

My search for the truth about Spergola led me in a few different directions.  Tar and Roses has an entry on Spergola with some interesting historical information, such as the fact that the first mention of Spergola can be traced back to the 15th Century.  Their take on Spergola's relationship to Sauvignon Blanc is the same as the OCW, though, which was not an encouraging start.  On the other hand, the VIVC has a stand-alone entry for Spergola, which is usually a solid indication that it is a separate cultivar (if it was just another name for Sauvignon Blanc, searching for Spergola would lead you to the SB entry and Spergola would merely be listed in the accepted synonyms section).  Finally, the importer's website (the indomitable Louis/Dressner), in their section on the winery who made the bottle I'll be taking a look at below, says "for many years [Spergola] was considered a type of Sauvignon, but has now been genetically proven to be a grape variety of its own."

While I don't ever just accept the phrase "genetically proven" or "DNA studies have shown," seeing that phrase at least lets me know that someone has done the work and all I need to do is track it down.  For those interested, the two best ways that I've found to try and find academic papers published about wine are Google Scholar and the Vitis-Vea database.  A simple search for "spergola" in the Vitis-Vea database yielded only three results, but the title of the second result ("Morphological and genetic characterisation of the white grape cvs Spergola, Sauvignon and Sémillon") immediately told me that I'd found what I was looking for.  The problem was that the Vitis-Vea database doesn't have PDF copies of all of the papers they have abstracts for and since the university I work for (in an administrative and not an academic capacity) isn't primarily an agricultural school, it can be difficult to actually get my hands on some of these papers.  To compound matters, this particular paper was published in an Italian journal and was likely also written in Italian, so even if I could get the article, I probably wouldn't be able to understand it.

Fortunately, nearly every journal offers the abstracts of their papers for free, and for this particular paper, the abstract was not only very comprehensive, but it was also written in English.  Those interested can read the full abstract here, but in brief, the researchers decided to test whether Spergola and Sauvignon Blanc were the same grape.  Spergola is also known as Spergolina Verde in some places, and some believed that it could be the same as Sémillon, so the scientists tested that as well.  Their ampelographical and their genetic tests were all unequivocal and demonstrated conclusively that Spergola, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon were all separate, genetically distinct grape varieties.  They advise that "the name Spergola should be stricken from the list of the Sauvignon synonyms recognised in the National Catalogue of Grape Varieties and registered therein as a variety in its own right. It should, at the same time, be listed among the recommended varieties in the Reggio Emilia province areas, with the consequent changes in the CDO labelling for Colli di Scandiano e di Canossa white wine, in which at present it is indicated as a synonym for Sauvignon and Spergola."

This paper was published in 2001, and as far as I can tell, there hasn't been any further work to disprove the findings, so it seems like it's pretty safe to say that Spergola is definitely different from Sauvignon Blanc.  It seems to be grown almost exclusively in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, where its naturally high acidity means that it is usually made into a sparkling wine of some sort.  Some sources also indicate that Spergola is sometimes used in the production of Balsamic Vinegar, but the Consorzio Produttori Antiche Acetaie says that for traditional Balsamic Vinegar, "the grapes harvested must be those 'used for the wine traditionally cultivated in the province of Modena,' and in particular from Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes." It's not inconceivable that some Spergola may find its way into some form of Balsamic Vinegar somewhere, but if you're interested in tasting what the Spergola grape is all about, Balsamic Vinegar is probably not your best bet (delicious as it may be).

I was able to try a bottle of the 2007 Ca de Noci "Querciole," which I picked up from my friends at the Wine Bottega for around $35.  This wine is 100% Spergola that undergoes a natural re-fermentation in the bottle to give it a little bit of fizz (the same winery also makes a traditional method sparkler from Spergola that I have not had the chance to try).  It's also unfiltered, so there are almost certainly going to be some little floaty things in your bottle and possibly your glass if you don't pour carefully.  In the glass this wine was a medium bronze color with steady bubbles.  The nose was fairly intense with yeasty bread dough, ripe apple and toasted nut aromas.  On the palate the wine was on the lighter side of medium with fairly high acidity. It was lightly fizzy and really heavy on secondary fermentation and oxidative characteristics.  There was some ripe apple and apple skin fruits along with a bit of apple cider, but it was mostly nutty, dusty and yeasty.  It looked and drank more like beer than wine, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your preferences, I suppose.  Button-down Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio lovers will probably want to give this wine a wide berth, but adventurous wine drinkers will certainly find a lot to intrigue and provoke here.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Verdelho - Madeira, Portugal; Canary Islands, Spain & California, USA

Several months ago, I wrote a post about the Sercial grape, in which I indicated that  I was planning a series of posts that would deal with the major grapes used in the production of Madeira.  That project is taking longer than I would have liked, but today I'd like to continue it with a look at another of the "classic" Madeira grapes, Verdelho.  In my Sercial post, I briefly outlined the history of Madeira wine, and readers interested in that topic are advised to read through that post, as today I'm more interested in taking a look at what makes Madeira different from other wines, and to do that we need to take a closer look at how it is made.

Before it was the name of a wine, Madeira was the name of a place, namely an island group about 600 miles west of Portugal.  It was one of the last stops for European ships on their way to the Americas, and many of them stocked up on the wines of the islands before setting off on their journeys.  In the early days, the wines made on the Madeira Islands were ordinary table wines, but it was found that they spoiled very quickly on board the ships, as they were stored in large barrels and exposed to the elements, particularly the sun, which deteriorated them rapidly.  Eventually it was found that adding brandy to the wines helped them last longer while on board traveling ships, but even these fortified wines eventually cooked in the merciless sun in the middle of the ocean.  While the resulting product was very different from everyday wine, it was found that it picked up some new and interesting flavors not found in any other wines, and many people began to develop a taste for it.  In particular, the US Colonies were very fond of these wines from Madeira and became a large export market for them.

Up until the early 20th Century, some Madeira houses still put barrels of wine on ships in order to properly age them, but virtually no one does that anymore.  Today, there are basically two different methods used to properly age Madeira: estafugem and canteiro.  Estafugem is the quick and dirty method where the wine is placed in large stainless steel vats that are heated either via a hot water jacket on the outside of the tank or by immersing a heating coil in the wine itself.  The vats are sealed, but not filled to capacity and are usually agitated in some way to aid oxidation as well.  The heat is applied for about three months before being bottled.  This method is fast and cheap and is used for the production of low-quality Madeiras, as the secondary flavor characteristics prized by Madeira enthusiasts are at best only hinted at using this method.

The canteiro method is the one preferred for the production of higher quality Madeiras, especially for vintage or varietal Madeiras.  Here, the wines are placed in wooden casks that can vary from 300 to 2500 litres, and the casks are placed in a warm place.  Many lodges place them in lofts or in areas as high as possible (since heat rises, after all), though others just place them outside in the sun.  The casks are typically left alone for at least two years, and the wines made in the canteiro style cannot be sold until at least three years from the January 1st following the harvest.  The casks are not topped up, and most barrels lose about 5% of their liquid each year due to evaporation.  Basic Madeiras sold with the name of one of the four "noble" Madeira grapes, Sercial, Bual, Verdelho or Malmsey, usually go through this process, while vintage Madeiras are typically aged for much, much longer.

As mentioned above, Verdelho is one of the four noble Madeira grapes.  Each of the four noble grapes maps roughly on to a particular style of Madeira with Sercial being the driest, Verdelho the next driest, Bual a little sweeter and Malmsey the sweetest.  The Verdelho of Madeira is not the same as the Verdelho of mainland Portugal, which is now known as Gouveio (or Godello, in Spain).  The Madeira Verdelho is also widely grown in the Azores, and it is thought that vines from the Azores were brought to Australia in the 19th Century.  Verdelho is still relatively widely planted throughout Australia, to the extent that the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show does not consider Verdelho to be an alternative variety and will not consider entries made from it.  I must admit that I came across more examples of wine made from the Verdelho grape than I had anticipated, but in the end decided it was still unusual enough to merit inclusion here.

The first wine that I tried was the 2005 Twisted Oak Verdelho made from grapes grown in the Silvaspoons Vineyard in Lodi, California, which I picked up from my friends over at the Gypsy Kitchen for about $16.  As mentioned in my recent post on Torrontés, the Silvaspoons Vineyard is owned and maintained by Ron Silva, who primarily grows Portuguese grape varieties there.  In the glass, this wine was a light silvery lemon color with greenish tints. The nose was fairly reserved with some green apple and lemon-lime citrus fruits along with some slighly oaky and buttery aromas as well.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly low acidity.  There were flavors of vanilla, ripe pear, buttery pie dough, ripe apple, coconut and pineapple candy.  I had half expected that the wine would be shot as it was 7 years old when I tried it, but it was drinking very well.  It's not really my style of wine, though, as the low acid and prominent oak are a deadly combination for my taste buds.  Fans of moderately oaked California Chardonnay will find a lot to like here, though, especially for the money.

The next wine that I tried was the 2007 Bodegas Viñátigo Verdello from the Ycoden Daute Isadora region on the western tip of the Tenerife island in the Canary Island chain.  I picked this wine up for around $32 from my friends at the Spirited Gourmet.  In the glass the wine was a fairly deep bronze-gold color.  The nose was fairly intense with leesy aromas of red apple, pear and honey with a little nuttiness and a little cheesy funk as well.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  There were flavors of toasted almonds and sawdust along with some honey, red apple, dried apple, dried apricot and baking spice.  This is a wine that really needs to be served as close to room temperature as you can manage, as it is harsh and spare when chilled too much.  As it warms up, though, the spice and dried fruits really become more apparent and the wine becomes much more generous and appealing.  It's not a cheap wine, but it is both good and interesting, which are the two major requirements I have for wines in this price range.

The final wine that I tried was the NV Vinhos Barbeito "Savannah Verdelho" from their Historic Series, which set me back about $40.  As a proud Georgia native, I was gratified to learn about the strong history of Madeira in the city of Savannah.  In addition to being a major port city for the import of Madeira wine in the early days of America, the city was (and I believe still is) the home to the Madeira Club of Savannah, a group of Madeira enthusiasts who gather monthly to drink fine old Madeiras, dine together and discuss issues of the day.  While this wine probably wouldn't be served at one of their functions, I found it plenty enjoyable.  In the glass the wine was a dark, deep tawny-brown color.  The nose was very intense with powerful roasted nut and burnt sugar aromas.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with high acid and medium sweetness.  There were zippy flavors of green apple, tasted walnuts and pecans, burnt sugar and smoke along with a slight salinity as well.  This wine was exceptionally balanced with an electric vein of acidity that really supported the sugar and nutty fruits.  This would be amazing with nutty desserts like pecan pie or baklava, but would also be nice with salty, funky cheeses as well.

Much of the discussion about the methods of producing Madeira wine is adapted from Trevor Elliott's The Wines of Madeira, which interested readers can order here.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Perricone - Sicily, Italy

When you think about red wines from Sicily, at least one grape probably springs immediately to mind.  Nero d'Avola has become the signature grape of the island, and it is difficult to walk into a wine store anywhere and not be able to find at least one on the shelves.  Sicily has a host of other interesting red grapes, though, and we've covered a few of them here recently.  Nerello Mascalese is starting to show up more and more in many wine shops, as is Frappato, which is undoubtedly one of my favorite grapes.  Today I'd like to take a look at an even lesser known Sicilian grape called Perricone (which is sometimes called Pignatello, though it is not related to Pugnitello, Pignoletto, or Pignolo as far as I know).

When I started to research the Perricone grape, it initially looked like perhaps it wouldn't be suitable for inclusion on this site after all.  Searching for Perricone on Wikipedia initially directed me to a page for a Dr. Nicholas Perricone, but below the header for that article it says "for the wine grape that is also known as Perricone, see Barbera," which, to me at least, is certainly not Fringe Wine grape.  I was surprised, but went to the article on Barbera where I read "in Sicily, the grape [Barbera] is used in various blends under the names Perricone or Pignatello."  The source for this bit of information was the Oxford Companion to Wine, and in its entry for Barbera, the OCW says "in Sicilia some argue that the local Perricone, or Pignatello, is Barbera."  The OCW also has an entry on Perricone, though, which reads in full: "Sicilian red grape variety planted on hardly more than 1,000 ha/2,500 acres of the island.  Soft varietal wines are sometimes called by its synonym Pignatello."  No mention is made of a possible relationship to Barbera, so I decided to expand the search and see if there was anything more substantial that could prove or disprove a connection between the two grapes.

The VIVC cultivar name database has separate listings for Barbera and Perricone, which means that they are considered separate cultivars by the database.  The VIVC microsatellite database had an entry for Barbera, but not for Perricone, so I set out to try to find a DNA profile of Perricone to compare to the VIVC profile for Barbera.  The first paper that I found (citation 1 below) evaluated 82 different Sicilian grapes and published the microsatellite profile for each.  When I checked this against the Barbera entry in the VIVC, it was clear that they didn't match.  This was encouraging, but I felt like I needed a little more before I could feel confident that the two grapes were not identical and, furthermore, not related.

The VIVC's entry on Perricone indicates that one of its parents is Sangiovese.  The bibliographic entry for this bit of information led me to a second paper (citation 2 below), which I had actually read before while I was doing research for my post on Ciliegiolo.  In this paper, the authors provide microsatellite data that was consistent with what was in the first paper, and which also didn't match Barbera.  Further, the authors were able to show that Perricone is likely an offspring of Sangiovese, though the other parent is unknown.  Barbera is definitely not an offspring of Sangiovese, and if you don't want to take my word for it, you can plug each grape into the VIVC microsatellite database and see in the results (the fact that they don't match at either site on VVMD7 & VrZAG62 proves there is no parent/offspring relationship).  All of this information together means that Perricone and Barbera are definitely two different cultivars.

Now that we know what Perricone isn't, let's see if we can learn a little bit about what it is.  The phrase "blending grape" pops up a lot in descriptions of Perricone as its deep color, full body and tannic structure make it suitable for blending with lighter Sicilian grapes.  Nicolas Belfrage, in his Brunello to Zibibbo says that it was more widely spread throughout Sicily as recently as 100 years ago, but plantings have fallen over the past century as plantings of Nero d'Avola have risen since the grapes share many of the same oenological qualities, but Nero d'Avola is considered superior to Perricone in the quality of the wines it makes.  There are a couple of DOCs (namely Eloro and Contea di Sclafani) that permit the inclusion of Perricone and which also allow for varietal wines to be made from it, but the two wines that I was able to find were both IGT.

The first wine that I tried was the 2010 Feudo Montoni "Colle del Mandorlo," which I picked up for about $11 from my friends at the Spirited Gourmet.  In the glass the wine was a fairly deep purple-ruby color.  The nose was fairly intense with smoky black cherry and black raspberry fruit along with some savory charcoal and meat aromas.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity and medium tannins.  There were flavors of black cherry, blackberry and raspberry fruit as well as some smoky leather and charred meat.  There was something a little bit like burnt rubber on the finish, but it wasn't prominent enough to throw the wine off.  Overall I thought this wine was juicy, fruity and savory and actually reminded me quite a bit of Nero d'Avola or Syrah.  I thought it was a very nice value at only $11 and imagine that it would be a great match for pretty much any grilled red meat, though it is definitely soft and friendly enough to drink on its own.

The second wine that I tried was the 2007 Caruso Minini "Sachia" Perricone, which I picked up from Winestone for around $25.  In the glass this wine was also a fairly deep purple-ruby color.  The nose was moderately intense with smoke, black cherry, black plum, charred wood and dried fruit aromas.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acidity and fairly low tannins. There were big, gushing fruit flavors of black cherry, blackberry and dried blueberry fruit backed by smoke and char.  This was a much bigger and denser wine than the Montoni, loaded with rich, dark black fruits.  Again I was reminded of Nero d'Avola while drinking this wine, but the similarity to Syrah was much stronger here than in the Montoni.  Fans of rich, generous, hot weather Syrah-based wines will find a lot to like in this particular bottling.  Is it worth the extra money?  Well, it probably depends on what the occasion is and what you like to drink.  $25 seems like a fair price to me for what you get with this wine, but bargain hunters may be more comfortable with the $11 wine.  It would be difficult to go wrong with either choice, though, as both are very good.


1)  Carini, F., Mercati, F., Abbate, L., & Sunseri, F.  2010.  Microsatellite analyses for evaluation of genetic diversity among Sicilian grapevine cultivars.  Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution, 57, pp. 703-719.

2)  Di Vecchi Staraz, M., Bandinelli, R., Boselli, M., This, P., Boursiquot, J.M., Laucou, V., Lacombe, T., & Vares, D.  2007.  Genetic structuring and parentage analysis for evolutionary studies in grapevine: kin group and origin of the cultivar Sangiovese revealed.  Journal of the American Society of Horticultural Science, 132(4), pp. 514-524.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Torrontés - Silvaspoons Vineyard, Alta Mesa, California

On this day two years ago, I decided to start this wine blog.  Throughout the two years that I've been drinking, researching and writing about unusual grapes and wines, I've learned an amazing amount and met some really nice and interesting people.  I've been humbled that people choose to read and respond to the stuff that I write here, and I've really tried to make the content on this site worthy of other people's time and attention.  The very first grape that I wrote about on this blog was Torrontés, and I wrote that post after quickly scanning the Wikipedia entry on the grape, and then banged out a few tasting notes from memory.  It's the worst researched and probably the worst written post on the site, but I can't bring myself to take it down.  I've wanted to re-write several of those early posts, but have had so many new wines to write about, that I just haven't had the chance.  Today I'd like to rectify that and am going to write a new Torrontés post from scratch, taking a look at a very interesting California Torrontés in the process.

Torrontés is the most widely planted white grape in Argentina as of 2008 and has become a bit of a minor phenomenon on the US marketplace.  It is certainly not as easy to find as Malbec, but chances are good that if your local wine shop has a white wine from Argentina, it's probably a Torrontés.  But which Torrontés?  It turns out that there are three different Torrontés cultivars grown in Argentina: Torrontés Riojano, Torrontés Sanjuanino and Torrontés Mendocino.  Each is named for a different province of Argentina, with Riojano corresponding to La Rioja (and not the Rioja in Spain), Sanjuanino corresponding to San Juan and Mendocino corresponding to Mendoza (and not the county in California).  There are also a few grapes grown in Spain with Torrontes as a synonym (most notably Albillo Mayor and the Terrantez grape of Madeira), but these Spanish Torrontes grapes are not related to the Argentine grapes.

Torrontés Riojano is the most important cultivar commercially, and, for the most part, when you buy a bottle of Argentine Torrontés this is the grape that's in your glass.  Torrontés Sanjuanino has many of the same aromatic qualities that make Torrontés Riojano so popular, but it produces lower yields than Torrontés Riojano, so growers aren't as keen to plant it.  Torrontés Mendocino lacks the explosive aroma profile of the other two Torrontés cultivars and is only really cultivated in southern Argentina, when it is grown at all.  Torrontés Riojano and Torrontés Sanjuanino are also grown to some extent in Chile where they are known as Torentel and Moscatel de Austria respectively.  At this point, you may be wondering exactly what the relationship between these three grapes actually is.  Are they different clones of a single grape or are they different grapes?  And if they're different grapes, are they actually related to one another or are the names misleading?

In 2003, two teams of scientists from Argentina and from UC Davis in California set out to discover the relationships between these three grapes (citation 1 below).  They found that each had a genetically distinct DNA profile, and were thus separate cultivars.  They also found that Torrontés Riojano and Torrontés Sanjuanino are full siblings and that both resulted from a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Criolla Chica, which is actually the same grape as the Mission grape of California, or the Listan Negro grape of the Canary Islands (they also found a few other grapes whose parents are Muscat of Alexandria and Criolla Chica, but those grapes aren't really important here).  Torrontés Mendocino is a half-sibling of the other two Torrontés cultivars, as it has Muscat of Alexandria as one parent, but its other parent is unknown.  The authors believe that the crossings that created each of the Torrontés cultivars probably happened in South America, since there is no European grape that is a genetic match to any of them.

Torrontés is grown virtually nowhere outside of South America, but apparently grape grower Ron Silva, who usually specializes in Portuguese grapes, has planted some Torrontés in his Silvaspoons Vineyard in the Alta Mesa region of Lodi, California.  Silva mostly sells the grapes he grows to California wineries, and one of his customers is Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope Wines.  Forlorn Hope makes wines from a host of unusual grape varieties and is committed to minimal intervention in the winery.  Rorick uses only natural yeasts and older, neutral barrels in the winery, and if the Torrontés that I tried from him is any indication, he's not that into filtering his wines either (which is a good thing, as far as I'm concerned).

I was able to find a bottle of the 2009 Forlorn Hope "La Gitana" Torrontés from my friends at the Spirited Gourmet for around $28.  In the glass this wine was a medium lemon gold color and was a little hazy.  On the nose the wine was fairly intense with aromas of honeysuckle flower, peach, pineapple, tea leaves and lime.  The perfume was gorgeous and heady and almost a shame to drink.  On the palate the wine was medium body with fairly low acid.  There were flavors of waxy pear, honeysuckle flower, peach skin, orange blossom and beeswax.  The wine was delicate and subtle, but also incredibly complex.  This wine only needs a slight chill, if you want to chill it at all, as it shuts down at very cold temperatures, but when it's in the zone, it's an amazing, beautiful wine.  Many of the Torrontés based wines from Argentina can be very short or bitter on the palate and though they are almost all very perfumy and aromatic, I find that most of them end up disappointing me when I go to actually drink them.  This wine, though, is amazing the whole way through and is easily the best Torrontés-based wine that I've ever had.  Yes, it is going to run you more than the Argentine versions, but it's worth every penny.  Production is very limited on most of the Forlorn Hope wines, but if you happen to run across this, do not hesitate to pull the trigger.


1) Aguero, CB, Rodriguez, JG, Martinez, LE, Dangl, GS, & Meredity, CP.  2003.  Identity and parentage of Torrontés cultivars in Argentina.  American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, 54(4), pp 318-321.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Albarín Blanco - Tierra de Leon, Spain

A few months ago, reader Tony sent me an email asking if I'd ever had a wine made from the Albarín Blanco grape, and, furthermore, whether I knew if Albarín Blanco was the same grape as the much more well known Albariño.  His cursory research into the matter was inconclusive as some sources indicate that the grapes are identical to one another while others assert that they are separate varieties.  I'm always up for a challenge, so I decided to look into the matter a little bit to see what I could find.  I had always heard that the two grapes were identical, but I had never really investigated the matter in depth.

My first two lines of research are always Wikipedia and the Oxford Companion to Wine.  The latter source has no entry on Albarín Blanco while the former redirects you to the entry on Albariño.  This was interesting, but hardly conclusive, so next I checked out the VIVC database where I was surprised to find that there were separate entries for Albariño and Albarín Blanco, which is usually a solid indication that the grapes are indeed distinct from one another.  Given the conflict between the sources I had consulted to that point, I decided to check a few abstract databases to see if there were any studies published that looked at both Albarín Blanco and Albariño.

To my surprise, I was able to find quite a few different papers with DNA profiles for both grapes.  The first paper that I read (citation 1 below) was actually an ampelographical study which looked at the physical characteristics of a number of different vines in northwest Spain and concluded that the two vines looked different enough to be considered separate varieties.  The authors also examined the claim that Albarín Blanco was the same as the Albillo grape and were able to determine that they were separate grapes as well.  Ampelographical evidence is nice to have, but it's not really considered definitive in today's world of DNA analysis, so I moved on to the next paper (citation 2 below), which analyzed the DNA of a number of different grapes in northwestern Spain at 10 different microsatellite sites.  The results clearly showed that the two grapes were separate cultivars with distinct DNA profiles.  Somewhat tantalizingly, though, the profiles matched at one allele on 9 of the 10 sites analyzed, which may suggest some kind of relationship between the two grapes, though not a parent/offspring relationship.

Satisfied, I sent my findings back to Tony, who was excited by the answers that I found.  Tony had already tried a wine made from the grape and had found a lot of Sauvignon Blanc characteristics in it, so he decided to check the VIVC microsatellite database to see whether those two grapes might be related.  While there were a number of similarities, the data at the VIVC definitely indicated that there was no parent/offspring relationship between Sauvignon Blanc and Albarín Blanco.  Tony also decided to check Albarín Blanco against Savagnin, though, and, surprisingly, the two grapes matched one another at one allele on all six sites that the VIVC tracks.  This is suggestive of a parent/offspring relationship, but as we've mentioned here before, you need way more than six sites to determine those kinds of relationships, so I fired up the old search engines again and tried to find studies that might be able to link Savagnin with Albarín Blanco.

My search led me to a paper (citation 3 below) written by a Spanish research team who happened to notice that two sample vines (accessions) in the collection of the Mision Biologica de Galicia, which were both labeled as Albarín Blanco, actually looked very different from one another.  They suspected that these were two distinct vines, so they analyzed each of them.  They also analyzed a handful of other accessions that looked very similar to one of the Albarín Blanco vines (Albarín Blanc I) to see whether they were related as well.  What they found was that not only was the Albarín Blanco I vine distinct from the Albarín Blanco II vine, but the Albarín Blanco II vine was actually Savagnin!

The authors believe that Savagnin may have been brought into Spain in the late 19th Century by French wine technicians from Bordeaux.  These technicians came to show the locals how to graft vines onto native American rootstocks in order to thwart the phylloxera louse that had recently ravaged the vineyards of Europe.  They brought several different French vines with them, and it is thought that Savagnin could have been one of those vines.  Both Albarín Blanco and Savagnin share some physiological characteristics and both ripen early, so it is possible that growers confused the two vines and have just been calling both by the same name for years.  Coincidentally, it also turns out that much of what was grown in Australia as Albariño was later found to be Savagnin as well.  I can't find any evidence that the cases of mistaken identity have a common root cause, but the mind certainly swims with possibilities.

There was also a study published in 2003 (citation 4 below) that found that Albarín Blanco and Savagnin were identical.  The samples for this particular study both came from the El Encín in Madrid.  Readers with good memories may recall that an accession at the Encín was the result of all of the confusion surrounding Hondarrabi Zuri, as a sample mislabeled as Hondarrabi Zuri was actually an American hybrid grape called Noah.  The authors of the paper on Albarín Blanco and Savagnin say that while many of the vines at the Encín were collected by grapevine experts, towards the second half of the 20th Century, the institute began requesting vines from the Agricultural Authority of each province, rather than sending an expert into the fields to collect them.  In many cases, then, the person who was collecting the requested vine was not an expert, and it is thought that this led to many errors in naming in this collection.

All of which is interesting, but the original question that I had was whether Savagnin could possibly be a parent to Albarín Blanco.  I emailed the corresponding author on paper #3, but have not received any response.  I've also been unable to find anything definitive in the literature.  The closest thing I've found was a paper (citation 5 below) that analyzed 56 different grape varieties grown in the northwestern area of the Iberian peninsula, including both Albarín Blanco and Savagnin.  The study wasn't designed to check for parent/offspring relationships, but the authors do mention a few possible relationships between some of the grapes that they analyzed given the data that they acquired, but a possible relationship between Albarín Blanco and Savagnin is not mentioned.  This is merely suggestive evidence, but it makes me think that the two grapes probably aren't related.

I was able to pick up a bottle of the 2011 Villacezan "Elverite" Albarín Blanco from a store in the Pittsburgh, PA, area for about $9.  The wine is from the Tierra de Leon DO in northwestern Spain (map).  In the glass the wine was a pale silvery lemon color with greenish tints.  The nose was fairly intense with grapefruit, grapefruit peel, apricot and honeydew melon fruits along with a kind of grassy herbaceousness.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  There were flavors of white grapefruit, honeydew melon and grassy herbs along with a touch of salinity and a strong mineral finish.  Like Tony, I found a lot of similarities between this wine and a Sauvignon Blanc-based wine. The salinity and minerality really put this over the top for me and give it a kind of complexity that is very difficult to find at this price point.  It would be a slam-dunk with fresh oysters and lots of other seafood as well.  Sauvignon Blanc fans will find a lot to like here, as will fans of bright, fresh white wines.


1) Martinez, MC, & Perez, JE.  2000.  The forgotten vineyard of the Asturias Princedom (north of Spain) and ampelographic description of its grapevine cultivars (Vitis vinifera L.).  American Journal of Enology & Viticulture, 51(4), pp 370-378.

2) Gago, P, Santiago, JL, Boso, S, Alonso-Villaverde, V, Stella Grando, M, & Carmen Martinez, M.  2009.  Biodiversity and characterization of twenty-two Vitis vinifera L. cultivars in the northwestern Iberian peninsula.  American Journal of Enology & Viticulture, 60(3), pp 293-301.

3) Santiago, JL, Boso, S, Vilanova, M, & Carmen Martinez, M. 2005.  Characterisation of cv. Albarín Blanco (Vitis vinifera L.).  Synonyms, homonyms and errors of identification associated with this cultivar.  Journal International des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin, 39(2), pp 57-65.

4) Martin, JP, Borrego, J, Cabello, F, & Ortiz, JM.  2003.  Characterization of the Spanish diversity of grapevine cultivars using sequence-tagged microsatellite site markers.  Genome, 46, pp 10-18.

5) Martin, JP, Santiago, JL, Pinto-Carnide, O, Leal, F, Carmen Martinez, M, & Ortiz, JM.  2006.  Determination of relationships among autochthonus grapevine varieties (Vitis vinifera L.) in the northwest of the Iberian peninsula by using microsatellite markers.  Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution, 53, pp 1255-1261.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Weird Blend Wednesday - Bosco, Vermentino & Albarola, Cinque Terre, Liguria, Italy

Bosco Grapes
A few days ago we took a look at the Albarola grape, which is known as Bianchetta Genovese in the Golfo del Tigullio region of Liguria.  Today I'd like to take a look at another Ligurian wine that has a little Albarola in it, but is blended in such a way that Albarola isn't the star.  This wine is from the Cinque Terre region of Liguria, which is a little south and east from the Golfo del Tigullio, near the Ligurian border with Tuscany, but still right on the Ligurian Sea.  Cinque Terre means "five lands," and is so named for the five villages (Monterosso al Mare, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore and Vernazza) that compose it.  The villages are built right into the cliffs that overlook the Ligurian Sea and are accessible only via boat, train or on foot.  The entire landscape is steep and hilly and, as you might imagine, viticulture isn't exactly easy.  The locals have carved terraces into the hillsides to support both the buildings and any agricultural pursuits, such as growing vines (though olive trees are cultivated as well).  The hills are so steep that mechanized viticulture is virtually impossible and most vineyards are tended and picked by hand. Production is very small here since there isn't a lot of room for vineyards, and much of what is produced is drunk by tourists, both of which drive the price of the wines up a bit, though the labor-intensive nature of growing grapes here is also a contributing factor to the relatively high prices fetched by the wines.

Wines from the Cinque Terre DOC must be made up of at least 40% Bosco and can contain a maximum of 40% Vermentino and/or Albarola and a maximum of 20% of "other authorized white grapes."  As mentioned above, we just recently took a look at the Albarola grape, and we've taken a few indirect looks at the Vermentino grape (in the context of the Favorita and the Pigato grapes, which are genetically identical to Vermentino), which just leaves us the Bosco grape, about which there is apparently very little to say.  The Oxford Companion to Wine's entry reads in full: "ordinary white grape of Liguria."  Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes adds little more, as that entry reads "very ordinary Ligurian that forms the basis of Cinqueterre and oxidizes easily."  Nicolas Belfrage, in his Barolo to Valpolicella calls the grape "strange, but not so wonderful."  Besides Cinque Terre, Bosco is permitted in only one other DOC region, the Val Polcevara just west of Genoa in central Liguria, where it is allowed to make up no more than 40% of the blend.

I was able to try the 2009 Bisson "Marea," which is 60% Bosco and 40% Vermentina/Albarola (the winery doesn't give a more precise breakdown).  I picked this bottle up for about $29 locally.  In the glass the wine was a fairly deep lemon gold color.  The nose was moderately intense with aromas of golden apples, fresh pears, honeysuckle flower, pineapple and lemon.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  There were flavors of ripe red apples, lemon, almonds and pecan.  It was bitter and kind of metallic tasting as well.  I noted above that Bosco oxidizes pretty easily, and it's possible that this wine was starting to go through that process.  This bottle is only about three years old and I wouldn't expect it to be shot this soon, especially at this price point, but it's hard to say whether I just got a bad bottle or whether this is a wine meant to be drunk as early as possible.  I don't exactly relish the idea of dropping another $30 to try to find out, so please leave a comment below if you've had some experience with this wine and want to share it.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Bianchetta Genovese (Albarola) - Golfo del Tigullio, Liguria, Italy

I'm somewhat shocked to discover that today marks only the third time that I've written about a wine from Liguria.  We first visited this tiny region of northwestern Italy back in January when we took a look at the Pigato grape, which it turns out is genetically identical to Vermentino and Favorita.  We stopped by again back in April to take a look at an interesting little rosato made from the Ciliegiolo grape, which it turns out is an offspring of Sangiovese and a little known grape called Muscat Rouge de Madere.  Both of those posts dealt with some really interesting scientific questions and controversies, and today's grape looks to follow that trend, so join me in taking a look at the Bianchetta Genovese grape, more commonly known as Albarola.

For the most part, when you're talking about the Albarola grape, you're talking about the Cinque Terre region of Liguria.  Most wine drinkers who have had a white wine from Liguria have probably had one from Cinque Terre.  It's an interesting region that makes some really nice wines, and we'll take a closer look at it later this week, but we're not really interested in that region today because while Albarola is allowed in the wines of Cinque Terre, it cannot make up more than 40% of the blend there.  No, today we're interested in the Golfo del Tigullio region, which is a little farther north and west along the bend of the Ligurian coastline.  The growing area is based around the Gulf of Tigullio, particularly around the towns of Portofino, Santa Margherita and Rapallo.  Here, Albarola is known as Bianchetta Genovese, and DOC wines which indicate Bianchetta Genovese on the label must be made up of at least 85% Bianchetta.

But let's stop for a moment and ask whether Albarola and Bianchetta Genovese are really the same grape.  When you search for Bianchetta Genovese on Wikipedia, you are automatically redirected to the page for Albarola where you are told that one of the accepted synonyms for Albarola is Bianchetta Genovese.  This is true, but it's not the whole truth.  Bianchetta Genovese is also an accepted synonym for a grape called simply "Genovese," according to the VIVC.  Further, Nicolas Belfrage, in his Barolo to Valpolicella, distinguishes between Albarola and Bianchetta Genovese and writes about them as if they're two separate grapes. This source, seems to suggest that the grape can be found as a blending component in the wines of Cinque Terre, which would support the argument that it is in fact the same as Albarola.  This source, however, seems to indicate that Bianchetta Genovese is a rare grape rescued from extinction by Pierluigi Lugano, the founder of Enoteca Bisson, who made the wine we'll be looking at below.  This story matches the one told on the Bisson website, which says that Lugano was "led to 'revive' native Ligurian wines that were practically disappeared, such as the 'Bianchetta Genovese.'"  None of the literature on Albarola mentions any kind of revival or rescue from extinction, so either Bianchetta Genovese is separate from Albarola and Lugano saved it for the world, or it's really the same grape and all this talk of rescue is based on a mistake.

Which is true?  Once again, DNA research comes to the rescue.  A study done in 2009 (paper can be found here) analyzed several different grapes from Liguria as well as grapes from nearby regions of Italy.  The research team found that Albarola and Bianchetta Genovese were genetically identical, meaning that they are one and the same grape.  There was another vine called Albarola which didn't match the other samples in the study, but this was found to be an obscure local curiosity from Lavagna that isn't used for commercial wine production.  Interestingly, this study also found that the Tibouren grape grown in Provence, France, is the same as the Rossese grape grown around Dolceacqua in Liguria.

The wine I was able to try was the 2009 Bisson "u Pastine," which means something like "very special gift" in the local Ligurian dialect.  I picked this bottle up for about $25 locally.  In the glass this wine was a fairly deep lemon gold color.  The nose was moderately intense with subtle white pear, lemon, citrus peel and white flower aromas.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  There were flavors of pear and lemon fruit along with some bitter lemon peel.  The wine had a strong chalky minerality to it, which is something I'm never a particularly big fan of.  This grape is mostly found in blends and is rarely bottled on its own, and this wine is a compelling piece of evidence for why that might be the case.  Bisson usually makes very good and interesting wines, but this particular bottle just didn't have enough character to keep me engaged.  It could have been a little over the hill, and I'd be interested in trying a younger bottle if I happen to run across one on sale, but this is a difficult wine to recommend given my experience with this particular bottle.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Nuragus - Sardinia, Italy

The last time we visited the island of Sardinia (to take a look at the Torbato grape), we examined the history of the island from around the 15th Century to the present day in order to account for the Spanish origin of many of the grapes that are currently cultivated there.  Today I'd like to travel a little farther back in time in order to take a look at the Nuragic Civilization, who inhabited the island of Sardinia from around the 18th Century BC to around the 2nd Century AD, because some authorities believe that it is during this time period that the Nuragus grape either arrived on the island of Sardinia or was born there.

The Nuragic Civilization was, in its beginnings, primarily an agricultural civilization.  As the Bronze Age dawned in Europe, Sardinia became an important economic and military power because of the vast reserves of copper and lead that were discovered on the island.  Sardinia was known for the fine metals produced by the there and the Nuraghe became traders and sometimes adversaries with the other great civilizations of the time.  Around 1000 BC, the Phoenician Civilization began to trade heavily with the Sardinians, and in 540 BC, they attempted to conquer the island.  The attack was repelled, but the Phoenicians tried again in 509 BC and were eventually successful in conquering parts of coastal Sardinia and much of the southern portion of the island where many of the mines were located.  The Nuraghe retreated to the mountainous interior of Sardinia and were never really a major player on the world stage again.  In 238 BC, Sardinia was ceded to Rome as a result of Rome's victory over Carthage in the first Punic War and, over time, the Nuraghe commingled with the Romans and other ethnic groups to the extent that they just kind of eventually didn't exist.

Nuraghe Losa in Sardinia
The Nuragic Civilization left many important monuments to their existence, though.  All over the island of Sardinia, there are these tower-shaped stone ruins that are known as Nuraghe.  There are estimated to be about 7,000 of these Nuraghe throughout Sardinia, which means that there is, on average, about one Nuraghe for every three square kilometers of the island.  It is thought that there were many more of these towers during the height of the Nuragic Civilization but, despite their prevalence, no one really knows what the Nuraghe were used for.

All of which brings us to today's grape, Nuragus.  Nuragus is a very old Sardinian grape and it is thought to either be native to Sardinia or to have arrived with the Phoenicians at some point in the ancient past.  The grape takes its name from the mysterious Nuraghe that are found all over the island, just in case you thought that the history lesson above was gratuitous.  It is Sardinia's most widely planted white grape with approximately 8,000 acres devoted to it, and while it is grown all over the island (but nowhere else on earth), the main concentration of plantings are in the south around the town of Cagliari.  Nuragus is popular with growers because it is resistant to a variety of molds and vine diseases while also being capable of very high yields.  It has a number of colorful local nicknames like abbondosa (abundant), axina de poporus (grape of the poor), pagadepidu (debt-payer), preni tineddus (fill up the vats) and burdu (bastard).  The VIVC also lists Malvasia di Luras, Nuragus Moscatello and Nuragus Trebbiana as synonyms, though Nuragus is not related to Malvasia, Muscat or Trebbiano, as far as I know.

Wines made from the Nuragus grape are not intended to be aged, as I found out when I picked up a bottle of the 2007 Argiolas "S'elagas" Nuragus di Cagliari locally for around $16.  In the glass the wine was a medium gold color.  The nose was moderately intense with honeysuckle flower, ripe apple and honeyed pear aromas.  In the glass the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  Straight out of the refrigerator, this wine really didn't taste like anything and was too bland and bitter to really drink.  Once it got down to room temperature, though, flavors of apple peel, overripe apples, grapefruit peel and honey started to show up.  This bottle was clearly over the hill and was so washed out that I actually brought it back to the shop I bought it from and exchanged it for another wine.  It wasn't completely dead, but it was right on the brink and the whisper of life that it had left wasn't enough for me to feel that I was able to get a good sense for what the wine might taste like.

I had held off writing this post because I don't like to write about grapes that I've only been able to taste from flawed bottles or flawed wines.  Since I wasn't able to find a newer vintage of this wine in the Boston area, I had resigned myself to perhaps not writing about Nuragus at all, but reader Tony from Pennsylvania was nice enough to send me his tasting note for the 2010 vintage of this wine, which I've printed in full below.  Tony's bottle set him back about $15 at one of the Pennsylvania state stores.

Tony's tasting note:

Between a straw yellow and light gold.

The nose was quite aromatic with a good deal of melon and pear in the nose, with some mild herbaceousness, as well. It also had a note of honey, which became more noticeable as the wine warmed up. Lots of complexity.

Creamy mouthfeel, rich texture with medium-high acidity. Touch of bitterness on the finish, like bitter almond. The Argiolas website claims this is a characteristic of the grape, but I’ve noticed it on a few other Italian whites, such as Arneis and some Vermentinos, as well. When the wine was still chilled, the fruit was muted and the nose dominated. Taste was more of a lighter white with good acidity, a fairly rich texture, and a touch of bitterness on the finish. The taste changed dramatically as the wine warmed up. The melon and pear fruit, herbs, and honey flavors really opened up, matching the nose. Interesting, the honey characteristic did not impart any sweetness. More like the taste and richness of honey, but no sugar. It didn’t overwhelm, just added to the complexity. As it warmed up, the term that kept coming to my mind was “exotic”. Not in a cloying way, as the acidity did a nice job of keeping things in balance. In addition, it never lost that touch of bitter almond at the end. The website mentions nothing about the wine seeing any wood, but there may have been some malolactic fermentation that would help explain the richness.

Overall, a well-made and intriguing wine. If you keep it cold, such as in an ice bucket or refrigerator, then this would match well with appetizers or fish. It has a complex nose, but the taste remains light enough to go well with light dishes. But if you let it warm up, you’ll definitely want something to go with the richness that develops in the taste. Next time, I think I’d like to try this wine at cellar temperature with a nice, creamy Brie. That should be an interesting match!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Len de l'El (Loin de l'Oeil) - Côtes de Tarn & Gaillac, France

Len de l'El is a grape that I fully expected to only be able to try in a blend.  When I first came across it, it was in a white wine from southwestern France and it made up about 40% of the blend.  I had never heard of it before and for the longest time I didn't see another bottle that contained any Len de l'El in it, so I figured that might be the best I could do.  One day, though, I walked in a local shop that I usually only have average luck finding unusual wines in, and right up by the cash registers was a display featuring wines that were 100% Len de l'El.  I naturally picked a bottle up and began to wonder if perhaps Len de l'El was more common than I thought.  The answer, apparently, is no, as those two bottles are still the only bottles that I've been able to find that use the Len de l'El grape at all.  It's kind of amazing the unusual things you can find in places you might not expect so long as you keep your eyes and your mind open to them.

So today's grape is, obviously, Len de l'El, though both bottles that I tried spelled the name of the grape Loin de l'Oeil, and some sources refer to the grape as Len de l'Elh.  Loin de l'Oeil is the "proper" French spelling, while Len de l'El(h) is the spelling in the local Occitan dialect.  No matter which spelling you prefer, the grape's name translates into English as "far from the eye."  In his Grapes and Wines, Oz Clarke says that the grape is so named because "the clusters have long stalks, and so are a long way (well, relatively) from the eye, or bud, from which they sprang."  Pretty much every source I've consulted seems to buy this explanation, so that's good enough for me.

The grape is thought to be native to the Gaillac region of France, which we visited when we took a look at the Fer Servadou grape.  It was at one time a major component of the white wines from Gaillac, but, like so many other grapes, its prevalence and prominence fell drastically after the phylloxera epidemic.  It is prone to a host of grape diseases and tends to yield less prolifically than its frequent blending partner Mauzac so many growers elected to plant more Mauzac following the phylloxera outbreak.  In order to preserve Len de l'El in the vineyards of Gaillac, growers in the area decided to make a small percentage of Len de l'El compulsory in the area's wines when the AOC was established for the region in 1938.  At the time, a minimum of 15% Len de l'El was required in all Gaillac Blanc wines.  This undoubtedly helped to save the grape from extinction, and it has rebounded nicely since then, with plantings increasing five-fold over the past 50 years to a total of just under 2,000 acres as of the year 2000.  In 2007, the AOC regulations for white Gaillac wines changed so that winemakers can now use either Len de l'El or Sauvignon Blanc for that 15% that had previously been reserved solely for Len de l'El.  It's difficult to say whether this change will have a negative effect on plantings of Len de l'El in the long run, but given the respect for tradition in Southwest France, it seems unlikely that Len de l'El will slip into oblivion anytime soon.

As mentioned above, I was able to find two different wines that were made at least in part from the Len de l'El grape.  The first wine that I was able to try was the 2009 Genouillac "Burgale Blanc," which is a blended wine from the Vin de Pays du Comte Toloson near the Gaillac region of France.  This wine was 40% Len de l'El, 35% Mauzac and 25% Sauvignon Blanc.  I picked this wine up locally for around $10.  In the glass the wine was a fairly light silvery lemon color.  The nose was reserved with aromas of white pear, green apple, lemon and something just a little cidery.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with high acidity.  The wine was pretty simple with a bit of lemony citrus and green apple and not much else.  There was a kind of prickly sensation on the tip of the tongue while drinking this and I wasn't 100% sure whether it was just really lively acidity or whether there might have been a touch of residual carbon dioxide kicking around in there.  This is a solid, refreshing summertime wine, but that's about it.  It represents a decent value at around $10 but isn't the kind of thing that's going to blow your mind.

The second wine that I tried was the 2010 Domaine de la Chanade "Les Rials," which is a 100% Len de l'El that is barrel fermented and aged for a brief time on its lees (though I can't find any specific information on types of wood or lengths of time in barrel and on the lees).  The wine is from the Côtes de Tarn, which is located just on the western edge of the Gaillac region.  I picked this bottle up locally for about $9.  In the glass the wine was a medium lemon gold color.  The nose was fairly intense with red apple, baked pear and apricot fruits along with a very distinctive leesy, cheesy kind of character. On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  It was just off-dry and had flavors of ripe red apple, apricot, pineapple, mango, and grapefruit along with a yeasty, cheesy kind of taste as well.  This wine really started to open up and get more tropical as it approached room temperature, showing best with just a slight chill to it.  I really enjoyed this wine and thought it was an excellent bargain at only $9 a bottle.  It was fruity, friendly and a little sweet, but there was a nice depth to it from the lees contact as well.