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, October 31, 2012

Cayetana Blanca (Pardina) - Ribera del Guadiana, Spain

When I'm looking for something to write about here, I often skip over tasting notes in my notebook for wines that I've tried but which I'm not looking forward to researching.  For the most part, these are grapes that I've done a bit of preliminary research on and have found very little information, so I usually put them off for awhile and eventually get around to them when I feel bad about having neglected them for so long.  I try to include new and interesting information about the grapes and wines that I write about, and it can be a real struggle to dig long enough to find it for some of them.  I thought that today's grape was going to be this kind of struggle, but I quickly realized how wrong I was.

A few months back, I was browsing around Ralph's Derby Street Wine & Spirits in Hingham, MA, and I came across a Spanish white wine made from a grape called Pardina.  I'd not heard of it before, but I know that there's a lot of overlap between Spanish and Portuguese grapes, and also that many of these grapes have numerous synonyms.  I quickly looked it up on my phone and saw that it wasn't anything that I'd tried before, so I took the bottle home and opened it a few weeks later.  I put off writing about it because my initial research (basically just Wikipedia on my iPhone) said that Pardina was sometimes also known as Pardillo, and that was pretty much it.  That's definitely not enough information to warrant an entire blog post, and I didn't have any real reason to suspect that I'd find much more than that, so I procrastinated doing the deep research on the grape until today.

It turns out that Pardina is kind of a big deal.  Neither Pardina nor Pardillo is actually this grape's official name.  It is listed in the VIVC database under Cayetana Blanca, where it has a whopping 82 synonyms, including both Pardina and Pardillo*.  More notable, though, is the synonym Jaén Blanco, which is the name it is perhaps best known under throughout Spain.  References to Jaén can be traced all the way back to the 16th Century, and in 1807, a Spanish writer, commenting on the confusion of the times resulting from the widespread use of the name Jaén for a multitude of unrelated white grapes, wrote "the first person to clarify exactly all cultivars that are called Jaén in Spain will make their country a royal service."  Modern DNA science has certainly helped to provide some clarification, and it is thought today that Jaén Blanco/Cayetana Blanca/Pardina/etc is planted on over 30,000 acres of land, making it approximately the sixth most planted cultivar in Spain.  Much of the juice from these grapes is ultimately distilled into brandy with very little making its way into table wine production (though this is starting to change in some areas).

Despite its lack of viticultural importance, it turns out that Cayetana is very important for genetic reasons.  A study in the past year (citation 1) sought to find possible familial relationships between Cayetana Blanca and other Spanish and Portuguese grapes.  The study started out by analyzing 838 different plants and eventually whittled the number down to just a handful.  Among the discoveries the group made was a fairly broad family, very much like the Pinot x Gouais Blanc family discussed in my Romorantin post, with Cayetana Blanca and Alfrocheiro, a red Portuguese grape, as the two parents.  They found five different grapes with this exact parentage: Malvasia Preta, Mouraton, Cornifesto, Camarate and Castelão.  They were also able to disprove a prior study that had indicated that Cayetana Blanca's parents were Antão Vaz and Rabo de Ovelha, but still showed that either of those grapes (just not both) could be a parent or offspring of Cayetana Blanca.  They further showed a possible parent/offspring relationship between Cayetana Blanca and several other Portuguese and Spanish grapes, though they were not able to prove the specific relationship.

One of the most interesting things that the study found was that Cayetana Blanca and Listán Prieto (better known as Listán Negro or Mission) were the parents of a grape called Jaén Tinto.  While Jaén Tinto is one of the more common synonyms for the Mencía grape of Bierzo, we're not talking about Mencía here.  This Jaén Tinto has been described in Spain since the 18th Century, though there is very little of it left today.  This parentage link is important because it seems to definitely point to a Spanish origin for the Mission grape.  Some sources have indicated that Mission was actually developed in the US from a seedling from a Spanish vine, but this seems highly unlikely given Mission's role in the parentage of Jaén.  The reasoning is that Jaén Tinto is mentioned in the Spanish literature as early as 1765, which is before the phylloxera epidemic.  Phylloxera essentially eradicated Mission from the Spanish mainland, though it did survive in the new world and in some of the Spanish islands.  It is very unlikely that Jaén Tinto was born in one of these places and taken back to Spain without being more widely cultivated in the place of its birth (and it is not cultivated in the new world or on the islands), so it must have been born on the Spanish mainland before the phylloxera epidemic, meaning that its parents must also have been present on the Spanish mainland at that time.

All of which is very interesting (I hope), but we're here to taste wine as well as find out interesting trivia about the grapes it is made from.  As mentioned above, I was able to pick up a bottle of the 2008 Bodegas Ortiz Señorío de Orán Pardina from Ralph's for about $12.  In the glass this wine was a medium lemon gold color.  The nose was fairly reserved with pear aromas and something vaguely cheesy and funky to it, but little else.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly low acidity.  There were flavors of white pear, ripe apple, and green melon with a twist of lemony citrus. There was also a touch of stony minerality on the finish, but overall this was pretty bland and subdued.  It's almost certainly a wine that should be enjoyed much younger than this but when Richard over at the Passionate Foodie tried this same wine in 2010, he didn't seem to find much more in it than I did.  There's nothing particularly wrong with it, but there isn't really much particularly right about it either.  It is at least relatively inexpensive, so adventurous tasters can sample it for themselves and make their own judgments.


1) Zinelabidine, LH, Haddioui, A, Rodriguez, V, Cabello, F, Eiras-Dias, JE, Martinez Zapater, JM, & Ibanez, J.  2012.  Identification by SNP analysis of a major role for Cayetana Blanca in the genetic network of Iberian peninsula grapevine varieties.  American Journal of Enology and Viticulture.  63(1), pp 121-126.

The source for the identification of Pardina with Cayetana Blanco seems to be:

2) Asensio, ML, Valdez, E, & Cabello, F.  2002.  Characterisation of some Spanish white grapevine cultivars by morphology and amino acid analysis.  Scientia Horticulturae.  93, pp 289-299.

This study doesn't use DNA analysis, but rather uses ampelography and amino acid content of the various varieties to conclude that the two grapes are identical.  I don't know enough about this methodology to know how sound their conclusions are, but this was the only paper I could find that linked those two grapes together.  The OCW says in their entry on Cayetana that the research was done in the early 2000s, but the entry on Pardina says it was done in 2005.  Without a specific citation, it's very difficult to follow the line of their research, but I've done the best I could.

*There is actually a Spanish grape called Pardillo, but Pardina is not one of its synonyms.  There is also a grape known solely as Pardina, but it's an Italian grape that looks like it may be a table grape and is unrelated to what we're talking about here.  The bit of information about Pardillo sometimes being known as Pardina ultimately comes from Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes entry on Pardillo (which was published in 1996).  I think its pretty clear that this Pardillo/Pardina is the same as Cayetana and is not meant to refer to this other Spanish Pardillo, but if you want to make a case for it, be my guest in the comments.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Fumin - Valle d'Aosta, Italy

Even though the Valle d'Aosta is Italy's smallest region by area and even though it ranks dead last in total vineyard area and in total wine production, it has proven to be full of unusual wines to write about.  Today marks our seventh foray into this region, which will place it in second place among Italian wine regions in terms of number of posts I've written (Piemonte is first with a whopping 14 posts).  In the past, we've taken a look at Prié Blanc, Cornalin, Prëmetta, Petit Rouge, Petite Arvine and a blended red wine made from a handful of local grapes.  Many of these grapes are found only in the Valle d'Aosta and to some extent just over the border in Switzerland, but pretty much nowhere else.  This means that there isn't very much of any of them planted and when you couple this with the strong demand for the wines from thirsty skiers and Alpine sightseers, you end up with very little left over for the rest of the world.  Finding wines from the Valle d'Aosta is a rare treat, and today I'd like to talk about Fumin, one of my recent finds from the area.

There isn't much information available about Fumin (see Wikipedia's embarrassingly paltry entry, for example).  There has been a surprising amount of DNA research about the indigenous grapes of the Valle d'Aosta (cited in several of the posts linked above for those curious), though, and it turns out that many of them appear to be related to one another (see this prior post from me, where we discover that Petit Rouge and Mayolet are the grandparents of Cornalin and this paper that shows that Prié and Prëmetta are closely related), but to date Fumin has not been identified in any of the immediate pedigrees for any of the other Valle d'Aosta grapes (though in the paper linked in the prior parenthetical statement, it does seem to have more in common with Cornalin du Valais, the Swiss Cornalin that is parent to the Cornalin d'Aoste and offspring of Petit Rouge and Mayolet, than with any of the other grapes in the region).  It is probably related to the other native grapes somehow, but the exact link just hasn't been discovered yet.

Many sources indicate that Fumin was on its way to extinction on the early 1980's before being rescued and propagated by local growers, but I can't seem to find any primary source that can confirm that story.  It does seem like Fumin's reputation has changed very recently, though.  In her 1996 Guide to Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson's entry on Fumin reads in full: "tough Valle d'Aosta speciality that is usually blended."  Her opinion has survived essentially intact into the newest edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine (print and online version), which reads: "dark-berried vine speciality of the Valle d'Aosta whose produce is usually used for blending."  In their 2005 Vino Italiano, however, Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch describe Fumin as a "native grape on the rise," and they compare it favorably to Syrah.  In 2010, the New York Times' Eric Asimov featured Fumin in a column about unusual grapes, and by 2011, Ian D'Agata was writing in Decanter that Fumin "only existed in blends as recently as 15 years ago.  Today it is considered the red grape of greatest breeding among the region’s natives [...]"  Fumin has seemingly risen from being at the very least a minor blending component (and at the very worst being essentially extinct) to challenging Petit Rouge for the titles of most widely esteemed and widely planted indigenous red grape in the region.

Despite its recent rise in stature, varietal Fumin wines are still not that easy to find.  The Valle d'Aosta only has just over 500 hectares devoted to viticulture throughout the entire region, and that total is split between a a lot of different grapes (I know I've put this statistic in pretty much everything that I've written about this region, but I just find it fascinating: 90% of the production in the very Alpine Valle d'Aosta is red wine).  I can't find any exact figures for plantings of Fumin, but you can do the preliminary math in your head to figure that there probably isn't  a lot of it.  As far as I know, it isn't planted anywhere else in the world, either.  When you combine scarcity, hot press, and a lively local market, you get a recipe for very few exports and what exports there are tend to be priced high.

This was certainly the case with the bottle of Fumin that I was able to find.  I picked up the last bottle that The Spirited Gourmet had in stock of the 2006 Grosjean Fumin "Vigne Merletta," which I understand is about 90% Fumin and 10% Petit Rouge.  The price tag was a hefty $40, but they only make around 8,000 bottles of this per year (about 666 cases, for you superstitious types).  In the glass the wine was a deep, opaque purple-ruby color with a narrow crimson rim.  The nose was moderately intense with wild black cherry, blackberry and meat aromas along with its signature notes of smoke (the name Fumin comes from fumo, the Italian word for smoke, because of the smoky character of wines made from it).  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acid and fairly soft tannins.  There were dark, brooding flavors of blackberry, blackcurrant, smoke, tar, wild blueberry, black-strap molasses and char.  The dark fruits and earthy smoke are all held up wonderfully by the bright Alpine acidity, though, and this wine never gets overwhelming or dull.  Fans of smoky Rhone-style Syrahs will find a lot to like here, though not necessarily at a value price.  I enjoyed it a lot, though, and felt like $40 was a fair price to pay for a rare wine that was very well done.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Vespolina - Colline Novaresi, Piemonte, Italy

Though I only wrote two posts last week, the content in those posts was pretty intense.  Each post focused on a different type of berry skin mutation in grapes (white and pink) and went into probably more detail than many readers were really interested in (or comfortable with).  I try not to make posts like those the general rule not only for readers' sakes, but also my own.  I put in dozens of hours of research for those posts and went to some expense to track down some of the papers I referenced and while I had fun (kind of) doing the research, it's not something I think I can do regularly and keep up a decent posting pace (or modicum of sanity).  So today I'd like to take it a little bit easier and talk about the Vespolina grape from Piemonte.

Just because we're taking it easier doesn't mean that we're not doing thorough research, though.  Enter Vespolina in your search engine of choice and visit the first few results.  The phrase (or some variation of it) "DNA profiling has shown a parent-offspring relationship with Nebbiolo" should feature fairly prominently on pretty much every result that you click on.  Regular readers of this blog will know that few phrases set my teeth on edge more than the vague "DNA profiling/results/research has shown," and as I dug a bit deeper into the relationship between Vespolina and Nebbiolo, I found that the real story was a bit more complicated than this phrase would lead you to believe.  I've covered some of this ground in my post on Sparkling Nebbiolo/Nebbiolo Bianco, so readers wanting more in depth information on Nebbiolo are advised to check that post out.

It turns out that there are at least two genetically distinct vines that are masquerading under the name Nebbiolo: Nebbiolo Rosé and Nebbiolo Lampia (citation 1...there's also a Nebbiolo Michet, but it turns out that this is a virus-infected clone of Lampia and the virus has caused morphological and genetic changes to the vines). Nebbiolo Rosé was considered a sub-variety or clonal variant of Nebbiolo until the early 2000's, when it was shown to be genetically distinct (also citation 1).  It was also shown that Nebbiolo Rosé has a parent/offspring relationship with Nebbiolo Lampia, though which direction the parentage goes is unknown (see my post on Ciliegiolo for details on why this might be the case).  The two grapes are planted together in various parts of Piemonte, though Nebbiolo Rosé is usually a minority planting wherever it is found.  It seems to be more important around the area of Sondrio where it is known as Chiavennaschino to differentiate it from Nebbiolo Lampia, which is known as Chiavennasca here.

For the most part, whenever someone is talking about Nebbiolo, they mean Nebbiolo Lampia, and most of the clonal variants that have been discovered are variants of Lampia.  In 2003, a team in Italy set out to try to discover the parents of Nebbiolo Lampia (citation 2) by examining about 90 different varieties found mostly in and around northwestern Italy.  It really looked like they may have had the parentage narrowed down to Freisa x Vespolina, as the microsatellite data was good at 22 loci, but then they came across a few sites where the data did not match up.  In 2005, the team expanded their search (paper is in Italian) in an attempt to see if perhaps grapes grown in nearby regions may provide the missing link for Nebbiolo's other parent, but their search was mostly fruitless (they identified Nebbiolo and Bianchetta as the parents for a grape called Bubbierasco, which I'm completely unfamiliar with).  As the research currently stands, it seems likely like Vespolina and Freisa have a parent/offspring relationship with Nebbiolo, but we can't be certain of the exact relationship without the presence of both parents, and for each of these grapes, no second parent has been found that would solve the mystery.

Now that we have a good idea of what we don't know and what we might know about Vespolina, let's take a moment to look at what we do know.  Vespolina is a low-yielding vine that can be found in Piemonte and in the Oltrepò Pavese region of Lombardia, where it is known as Ughetta.  It is thought to be native to the Gattinara region of Piemonte, though this supposition is based solely on the fact that the grape is found in only limited quantities outside of this region.  Nobody seems to really know where the grape's name came from, though a few sources are bold enough to proclaim that it is not linked to the Italian word for wasp, vespa, unlike our old friend Vespaiola.  Wherever it is grown, it is typically used as a blending grape to soften the sometimes rough edges of Nebbiolo.  It is rarely made into a varietal wine, but the DOC regulations of the Colline Novaresi DOC do allow for a varietally labeled Vespolina, so long as it makes up at least 85% of the blend.

I was able to find a bottle of the 2009 Platinetti Guido Vespolina, made in the Colline Novaresi DOC, from my friends at the Wine Bottega.  Retail price on this bottle was $21.  In the glass the wine was a deep, opaque, inky purple-black color with a narrow violet rim.  The nose was moderately intense with black cherry, blackberry, dusty leather, wild blueberry and plum aromas.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acidity and fairly intense tannins. There were dark, smoky black cherry, wild blueberry and blackberry fruits along with some leather and charcoal as well.  It is very black-fruit heavy right out of the bottle, but the flavors shift over to the red end of the spectrum as it opens up.  It's a very intense, fruity wine, but these flavors are well balanced by a smoky, earthy backbone.  There's something a bit wild and savage about the fruits here as well that makes this wine both delicious and interesting.  I was a big fan of this wine, but given how rare this grape seems to be, I don't anticipate having many opportunities to taste it.  If you run across it, definitely give it a shot as it is undoubtedly one of the better wines that I've tried.


1) Botta, R, Schneider, A, Akkak, A, Scott, NS, & Thomas, MR.  2000.  Within cultivar grapevine variability studied by morphometrical and molecular marker based techniques.  Acta Horticulturae, 528, pp 91-96.

2) Schneider, A, Boccacci, P, & Botta, R.  2003.  Genetic relationships among grape cultivars from north-western Italy.  Acta Horticulturae, 603, pp 229-235.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Sauvignon Gris, or why are some grapes pink? - Maipo Valley, Chile

A few days ago I wrote about the Tempranillo Blanco grape and the genetic underpinnings of white berry color in grapes.  In that post, we discovered that nearly all grapes are black in the wild and that while there are a series of genes that are responsible for creating and regulating the pigments (anthocyanins) in dark-berried grapes, a disruption in two of those genes (VvmybA1 and VvmybA2) is responsible for nearly all white-berried grapes that we enjoy today.  In short, a mobile genetic element (a retrotransposon called Gret1) jumped in front of the VvmybA1 gene hundreds of years ago and disrupted its function.  There was another mutation at some other point that also damaged the VvmybA2 gene, which created a recessive allele set with the potential to create white-berried vines.  A vine carrying this recessive allele was probably self-pollinated, and one or several of the seedlings carried both copies of the allele and a white berry was born.  It is estimated that 95% of white grapes today possess this mutation, which may indicate a common origin for all of them.  The story is more complicated (and interesting, I would argue) than the brief summary above, so I'd encourage you to read my prior article before continuing.

As you can see from the picture above, grapes don't just come in black/blue/purple and white/green.  There are also pink grapes, like Pinot Gris, Grenache GrisRoditis and Gewürztraminer, to name a few.  Most of the pink-berried vines that we are familiar with are berry color mutations of other vine, meaning basically that the vines that have a pink-berried mutation are also often found in both white and dark-berried form as well.  Knowing how we can get from dark-berried vines to white-berries ones is interesting, but it doesn't really give us a lot of information on how pink-berried vines may come to be.  We know that if a vine has at least one working copy of the VvmybA1 gene, meaning even if it has one copy of the white-berried mutation, then the berries are dark but if it has two copies of the Gret1 insertion which deactivates VvmybA1, then the berries are white.  There doesn't seem to be any way to get to pink with this mechanism.

While this particular set of mutations isn't able to tell us why some berries are pink, it does at least give us a clue as to where we might look.  There are several VvmybA genes in sequence, and it is thought that these genes together are responsible for a lot of the anthocyanin regulation in grapes.  The Gret1 mutation effectively blocks all anthocyanin production not because VvmybA1 is the only gene responsible for grape skin coloration, but because it is the first gene in the sequence, and when you knock out the first gene in the sequence, the sequence never starts and anthocyanins are not produced at all.  Variations in VvmybA1 that do not completely shut the gene down and variations in the downstream genes are the most likely candidates to be responsible for berry color variation.  A study done in 2009 (citation 1) seems to indicate that this is true.  The statistical modeling in the study found that just a few differences in the genes VvmybA1, VvmybA2 and VvmybA3 accounted for 84% of the total variation in berry color.

Some of the mutations in this gene cluster are caused by the Gret1 mutation jumping back out of its spot in front of VvmybA1.  Remember that Gret1 is a mobile DNA element that is capable of jumping around in a genome, meaning it can not only jump into a spot, as it did to create this mutation, but it can jump out again as well.  Just as white-berried vines can suddenly appear in a vineyard planted to dark-berried vines, so can dark-berried vines show up in vineyards planted to white berried vines.  When the Gret1 jumps back out of its position in front of VvmybA1, it leaves a little bit of itself behind and while this little bit isn't enough to deactivate the VvmybA1 gene, it does sometimes inhibit it a little bit.

In 2009, a Japanese research team examined two red-berry sports of a normally white-berried grape called Italia (citation 2).  One of the grapes, Benitaka, was darker  and had more anthocyanins in its skin than the other, Ruby Okuyama.  The team found that in the lighter grape, Ruby Okuyama, the Gret1 transposon had hopped out and left a little bit of itself behind.  VvmybA1 functionality was restored, but in a limited capacity and Ruby Okuyama grapes are a light pink color as a result.  In the darker grape, Benitaka, the Gret1 transposon was actually still present, but it was farther away from the gene than in white-berried grapes.  What had happened was something called Double Strand Break Repair, which is a complicated process that I don't want to spend too much time on, but in brief, what happens is that a piece of DNA breaks off and is repaired by a another piece of DNA from the matching second chromosome set.  In this case, what happened was that part of the sequence between Gret1 and the VvmybA1 gene broke away on one chromosome and was repaired by a bit of DNA from between an area in front of VvmybA3 and into that gene from the other chromosome.  This "repair" essentially restored the gene's functionality and pushed Gret1 far enough away that it couldn't interfere in the gene stream anymore.

This is one explanation for pink-berried grapes, but it isn't the only one.  One of the more interesting explanations comes from a study done on Pinot Gris grapes (citation 3).  That study found that several Pinot Gris clones were actually chimeras.  Longtime readers of this site may remember a prior discussion of chimeras in the context of Pinot Meunier.  Essentially, a chimera is an organism which has cells with different DNA growing within it.  In nearly all organisms, every cell that the organism possesses has the same DNA.  Different genes are active in different cells, but the overall genotype is identical in every cell.  Chimeras have cells with different genotypes coexisting in the organism.

Here's how it happens.  The growth regions of plants, like buds and shoots, are called meristems and the meristem is divided into 3 cell layers.  The cells in the meristem are something like stem cells in human beings, in that they do not have any specific function while they are dividing, and become differentiated cells at a later point.  In a chimera, a cell in one of these layers undergoes some kind of mutation that makes its DNA different than the cells around it.  This mutated cell divides and becomes a part of the plant.  Chimeric mutations do not always lead to visible changes in the plant, but those that don't are typically not discovered. Chimeric mutations are not passed along to offspring, but they can be vegetatively propagated, or cloned, so chimeric mutations in grapes are passed along as cuttings from the vines are planted.  Those interested in reading more should check out this site, which is informative and fairly easy to understand.

In the study referenced above, the authors analyzed a few different clones of Pinot Gris and found that several (but not all) of them were chimeras.  They decided to self-pollinate two of these chimeric vines in order to see how the plant's DNA  was passed along to its offspring.  What they found was that the plants that grew from every single one of the seedlings had white berries instead of pink.  They also noticed that on some of the berry clusters from the original vines, there were berries that were half white and half pink!  It seems like what is happening is that Pinot Gris started out as Pinot Blanc and at some point, a chimeric mutation happened on the Pinot Blanc vine and the mutation had the allele to create red pigment.  Both cell types are in the berries with some of them creating unpigmented cells and others creating pigmented cells.  Together, these two cells create the appearance of pink or grey berries.  Chimerism doesn't explain all pink-berried vines, but it does seem to explain at least one mechanism for pink-berried vines that does not directly rely on the VvmybA gene group (though this group is indirectly involved via the unpigmented cells).

All of which, finally, brings us to Sauvignon Gris.  Sauvignon Gris is a pink-berried mutation of Sauvignon Blanc, though which mechanism discussed above is responsible for the pink skins is something I've not been able to figure out.  It is currently grown in Chile, Australia, New Zealand and France.  It is becoming more popular in Bordeaux in recent years and current plantings there stand at just over 330 hectares.  There is a story that the grape was virtually extinct until it was rediscovered in the 1980's by Jacky Prey in the Loire Valley, who calls it Fié Gris.  Fié is an old synonym for a particular clone of Sauvignon Blanc that was notoriously low-yielding and was thought to have been wiped out by phylloxera.  It's a nice story, but I'm not sure if I buy that Prey's discovery is the source for all of the Sauvignon Gris grown in the far corners of the world today, as it looks to me like the grape was sent to Chile and Australia before the 1980's.

I was able to pick up a bottle of the 2009 Cousino-Macul Sauvignon Gris from the Maipo Valley in Chile for around $12 from my friends at Bin Ends.  In the glass, the wine was a medium silvery lemon color.  The nose was fairly lackluster with some subtle white pear aromas and a faint whiff of peach of and grapefruit citrus.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly low acidity.  There were round white peach flavors along with some white grapefruit, grapefruit peel, and white pear.  The character of the wine was broad and fat, which surprised me given the acid levels in most Sauvignon Blanc based wines.  The finish was bitter, chalky and pithy and not really all that enjoyable. There were some similarities to Sauvignon Blanc in this wine, but not enough of them.  It's certainly possible that this wine may have been a little past peak, but I really expected it to still be showing decently since I don't think I've ever had a Sauvignon Blanc wine shut down after only 3 years in bottle.  I'm not ready to write the grape off after this experience, though, and if I come across a younger example or one from Bordeaux, I'll definitely post a note below.


1)  Fournier-Level, A, Le Cunff, L, Gomez, C, Doligez, A, Ageorges A, et al.  2009.  Quantitative genetic bases of anthocyanin variation in grape (Vitis vinifera L. ssp sativa) berry: A QTL to QTN integrated study. Genetics.  183, 1127-1139.

2) Azuma, A, Kobayashi, S, Goto-Yamamoto, N, Shiraishi, M, Mitani, N, Yakushiji, H, & Koshita, Y.  2009.  Color recovery in berries of grape (Vitis vinifera L.) 'Benitaka,' a bud sport of 'Italia,' is caused by a novel allele at the VvmybA1 locus.  Plant Science.  176, pp 470-478.

3) Hocquigny, S, Pelsy, F, Dumas, V, Kindt, S, Heloir, M-C, & Merdinoglu, D.  2004.  Diversification within grapevine cultivars goes through chimeric states.  Genome.  47, pp 579-589.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Tempranillo Blanco, or why are some grapes white? - Rioja, Spain

A few months ago, I wrote about a white wine that I tried made from red Tempranillo grapes.  I indicated in that post that I was hoping that the wine would be from a rare grape I had read about which was actually a white-berried mutation of red Tempranillo grapes, but alas, it was not.  A few weeks back, reader Tony tipped me off to an internet only special that the Pennsylvania state stores were running on a bottle that was actually made from 100% white Tempranillo grapes.  I was able to track the bottle down and try it recently, and that note is below.

While starting to research this wine, I found myself wondering just what might be going on in a grape that would cause a berry color mutation.  I knew that these mutations were more common in some grapes than in others, and I also knew that the DNA analyses being done for cultivar identification and pedigree reconstruction were unable to differentiate these mutations from their mother vines.  There was clearly something genetic going on, though, and I wondered if scientists had been able to figure out anything about the genetics of berry color.  I found the results of my research very interesting, and have tried to summarize what I learned in the paragraphs that follow.

While there are a large number of white and red/black berried Vitis vinifera grapes, it turns out that most wild grape types are almost always black.  Of the 30 Vitis species native to North America, only 3 have been reported to have any white-berried cultivars, and those 3 only have 1 white-berried vine each.  Before the advent of modern DNA analysis, scientists were studying genetics by observing traits in various plants and animals and seeing how those traits were passed along to offspring.  As early as 1915, UP Hedrick and RD Anthony were able to show that the white berry color was a recessive trait.  For those not up on their high school biology, remember that grapevines (and people) have two sets of DNA encoded on two sets of chromosomes (one from each parent).  For a dominant trait, only one set of chromosomes needs to have the gene for that particular trait in order for it to be expressed.  For a recessive trait, both sets of chromosomes must have the gene for that trait in order to be expressed.  If a vine has one gene for red or black berries and the other gene is for white berries, then the berries on that vine will be red or black.  Only if a vine has two genes for white berries will white berries result.  Crossing two white berried vines will always create a new white berried vine, but crossing two red berried vines may still produce a white berried vine 25% of the time if both original vines carried the recessive gene for white berries.

It would be wonderful if it turned out that there was a single gene responsible for berry color, but as with many issues in genetics, the real story is a little more complicated than that.  It turns out that color in grapevines comes from compounds known as anthocyanins which are blue or purple pigments that color nearly all blue or purple plants from eggplants to violets.  There are many different genes that regulate anthocyanin production, but it turns out that one (or possibly two) of them is much more important than the others.  In 2005, a Japanese research team (citation 1) discovered a retrotransposon, which they named Gret1, which seemed to contribute to white berried mutations of grapes.  A retrotransposon is a special class of transposon, which is just a segment of DNA that is able to move around within a genome, meaning basically that they are able to kind of cut themselves out of a particular segment of DNA and insert themselves somewhere else.  Retrotransposons encode onto RNA which then moves around and is reverse-transcribed into another part of the genome.

Retrotransposons are fairly common in the genomes of most living things, but for the most part, they move around in areas of "junk DNA" and don't cause any trouble.  When one lands in or near a gene, though, it can disrupt that gene's function and lead to a mutant.  What the Japanese team found was that when Gret1 jumped in front of a particular gene (with the catchy name VvmybA1) responsible for anthocyanin regulation on both sets of chromosomes, the result was a white-berried vine.  What scientists think is happening is that VvmybA1 is part of a sequence of genes that together regulate anthocyanin production in grapes.  When this first gene is disrupted, the whole sequence is shut down and anthocyanins aren't produced.  There is some evidence that disruptions to the next gene in the sequence, VvmybA2, also lead to white berry production (see note at bottom*).  The entire sequence is not fully understood at this time, but it looks like disruptions to these two genes may be responsible for approximately 95% of all white berried vines on earth.

The Japanese team looked at only a small number of grapes for their studies, but in 2007, a much larger study (citation 2) was done on a larger range of grapes (over 200) to see whether Gret1's involvement in berry fruit color could be determined.  They looked at 84 white berried vines and 117 pigmented berried vines and found that the Gret1 sequence was in both chromosome sets in 81 of the 84 white vines, while all 117 of the pigmented berries had at least one complete copy of the VvmybA1 gene without the Gret1 mutation.  The results clearly indicate that there's a very high degree of correlation between the presence of Gret1 in the VvmybA1 gene, but the presence of white-berried vines that do not show this particular mutation indicate that there are likely other mechanisms for the creation of white-berried vines as well.

The research team also performed a DNA sequence analysis on all of the vines present, and what they found was that there was actually very little diversity between all of the white berried vines in the study.  Furthermore, even the sequences of the red-berried vines that had one copy of the mutated gene tended to be very similar to one another and to the white-berried vines.  The team has hypothesized that a single jump of the Gret1 retrotransposon into the VvmybA1 gene happened a very long time ago and created a white berried vine.  Since the Gret1 mutation is found in essentially the same location for all white-berried vines, this mutation probably happened on a single chromosome in a red-berried vine.  This vine was probably self-fertilized at some point, and when the seeds were planted, about 1/4 of them turned into vines with white berries.  One or several of these vines are probably the distant ancestor(s) of many of the white grape vines that we enjoy today.

All of which brings us to Tempranillo Blanco.  Remember from our investigation into the Albillo grape that Tempranillo's parents were Albillo Mayor and Benedicto.  Albillo Mayor is a white-berried grape, and it is likely that it carries this particular mutation.  When crossed with Benedicto, a red-berried grape, the offspring would also be red-berried, but it would carry one copy of the recessive white allele.  It is possible that at some point, the non-mutated allele (the red-berried one) itself either went through the mutation above or had some other kind of mutation to the VvmybA1 gene that caused it to be non-functional.  The result would be a white-berried vine.  It has been demonstrated in Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon that white berried-mutations are the result of a complete deletion of the previously functional VvmybA1 gene, which means that the mutated tissue now has one copy of the mutation and nothing on its other chromosome, which results in white berries (citation 3 and 4).  It is unclear whether this is the mechanism that occurs for all white-berried sport mutations, though.

As far as I know, no one has analyzed Tempranillo Blanco's genome in order to see exactly what kind of mutation occurred (**UPDATE** I'm kind of wrong here...I have found a paper that shows that Tempranillo Blanco has at least one copy of the mutant VvmybA1 gene [with the Gret1 insertion], which isn't surprising since Tempranillo does as well, but the paper doesn't offer an explanation as to what might have happened to the functional VvmybA1 gene to cause the color mutation).  I've seen references to a DNA test that was done in order to verify that it was in fact Tempranillo, but I can't find the source for that info.  What we do know is that in 1988, a grower in Rioja noticed that one of his Tempranillo vines was suddenly producing green berries (green = white in viticultural terms).  The local authorities took some cuttings and propagated them to see if the vine was suitable for planting in the area.  The early results were encouraging, and a few wineries were allowed to cultivate the grape on an experimental basis.  In 2007, Tempranillo Blanco was officially permitted in DOC wines from Rioja.

I special ordered the 2009 Ad Libitum 100% Tempranillo Blanco from the Pennsylvania state store website.  Retail on the bottle was $15 and shipping was around $7 (they do not ship out of state, but my in-laws live around Pittsburgh and were able to pick the bottle up for me).  In the glass the wine was a medium silvery lemon color with greenish tints.  The nose was fairly intense with pear, beeswax, mint and asparagus aromas.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with medium acidity.  There were flavors of pear, cooked asparagus, Meyer lemon, eucalyptus and beeswax.  It had a very vegetal kind of flavor profile overall that was really odd.  It picks up a bit of tartness as it approaches room temperature, but never really shakes off the stewed vegetable character.  I don't see this grape taking over the vineyards of Rioja any time soon, especially since the Consejo Regulador of the Rioja region has specified that vineyards must pull up a previously growing vine in order to plant Tempranillo Blanco in their vineyards.  I'd like to get my hands on a fresher example to see if perhaps age played a part in my disliking this wine, but as you might imagine, Tempranillo Blanco based wines are pretty difficult to find. 


1) Kobayashi, S, Goto-Yamamoto, N, Hirochika, H.  (2004)  Retrotransposon-induced mutations in grape skin color.  Science.  304, pp 982.

2)  This, P, Lacome, T, Cadle-Davidson, M, Owens, CL.  (2007)  Wine grape (Vitis vinifera L.) color associates with allelic variation in the domestication gene VvmybA1.  Theoretical and Applied Genetics.  114, pp 723-730.

3) Yakushiji, H, Kobayashi, S, Goto-Yamamoto, N, Jeong, ST, Sueta, T, Mitani, N, Azuma, A.  2006.  A skin color mutation of grapevine, from black-skinned Pinot Noir to white-skinned Pinot Blanc is caused by the deletion of the functional VvmybA1 allele.  Bioscience, Biotechnology and Biochemistry.  70(6), pp 1506-1508.

4) Walker, AR, Lee, E, Robinson, SP.  Two new grape cultivars, bud sports of Cabernet Sauvignon bearing pale-coloured berries, are the result of deletion of two regulatory genes of the berry colour locus.  Plant Molecular Biology.  62(4-5), 623-645.

also consulted:

Cadle-Davidson, M, Owens, CL.  (2008)  Genomic amplification of the Gret1 retroelement in white-fruited accessions of wild Vitis and interspecific hybrids.  Thoretical and Applied Genetics.  116, pp 1079-1094.

**I've recently come across a more recent paper that shows that locates a specific mutation in VvmybA2 that is present in all white cultivars that also have the Gret1 transposon mutation in front of VvmybA1.  The VvmybA2 mutation occurs in two places within the gene.  The first mutation alters the production of an amino acid (the gene produces leucine here in the non-mutated version and arginine in the mutated one), while the second mutation is a deletion of a dinucleotide, which causes the gene to terminate early.  It looks like these mutations on VvmybA1 and VvmybA2 are typically found together in most of the white-berried grape cultivars studied.

Walker, AR, Lee, E, Bogs, J, McDavid, DAJ, Thomas, MR, & Robinson, SP.  2007.  White grapes arose through the mutation of two similar and adjacent regulatory genes.  The Plant Journal.  49, pp 772-785.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Pinotage - Stellenbosch, South Africa

Pinotage is not a grape that I would usually write about.  Wines made from it are relatively common and I can usually find several examples in an average wine shop in the Boston area.  It is considered by many to be the signature grape of South Africa and there's even a Pinotage Association devoted to it though, somewhat surprisingly, it only accounts for about 6% of the total plantings in South Africa.  I decided to make an exception, though, in order to trot out a new feature that will probably be published erratically, but which I've been curious to try for some time: book reviews.  I buy and read a lot of books on wine, many specifically for research for this site, and I thought it might be interesting to review some of them, especially since some are out of print and/or unusually expensive.  I was initially planning to roll this feature out after reading the new Wine Grapes book from the OCW crew due out later this month, but I decided to move it up because it's my blog and I can do what I want.

I'm starting this new angle with a look at the Pinotage grape because I was recently contacted by Peter May after he was directed to my site via a post on a wine-related message board.  Peter mentioned in his email that we shared an interest in fringe grapes and wines and that some of my posts were similar to his investigations into the Pinotage grape, which he had published in book form in 2009 (Pinotage: Behind the Legends of South Africa's Own Wine).  If there's one grape that I definitely thought I wouldn't want to read about, it would be Pinotage, as I've not only disliked, but very strongly disliked every wine I've ever had from it.  I went to Amazon.com to have a look at his book anyway and read the following description: "During researches in South Africa Peter F May was told information that differed from the standard definition of Pinotage in text books. Turning detective, May investigated various legends about Pinotage's parentage and origins."  Whatever my thoughts were on the grape, May's angle for his book seemed to be right up my alley, so I immediately purchased the book and just finished reading it a few days ago (you can find the book on Amazon, but it is much cheaper on Lulu.com).

The book opens with May visiting South Africa on a business trip in the mid 1990's.  While there, he decides to sample some of the local wines and comes away with a fondness for a grape called Pinotage.  When he returned to the country the following year, he began to seek out wineries that made wine from the Pinotage grape and became more and more enamored with it.  In 1997, he founded the Pinotage Club online and began to learn more about the grape.  What he was finding, though, is what I have found in many of my own investigations, which is that much of the information available on the grape was conflicting, especially regarding the grape's parentage.  Most people accepted that Pinotage was created by Dr. Abraham Perold in South Africa, but nobody could seem to agree on just when the grape was created, just who its parents were, or just why Dr. Perold created the grape in the first place.  In the first half of Pinotage, Peter May goes about finding the answers to those questions.

May's research is thorough and his findings are very convincing.  Given my interest in parentage studies for grapes, the part that most interested me was the section on finding the parents of Pinotage.  In November 1924, Dr. Perold took the pollen from a Pinot Noir plant and used it to fertilize the flower of a vine called Hermitage (the name Pinotage is a portmanteau of Pinot and Hermitage).  There was some question, though, over just what grape Hermitage actually was.  Hermitage is a common synonym for the Syrah grape, especially in Australia, and given some of the characteristics of Pinotage wines, many believed that Syrah was the other parent.  Hermitage is also a synonym for the Cinsaut grape, though, and after tracking down a copy of Dr. Perold's book A Treatise on Viticulture, May is able to show that Dr. Perold was, in fact, referring to the Cinsaut grape when using the term Hermitage.

One of the more interesting legends that May examines, and one that I wasn't familiar with, is that Pinotage is actually a hybrid vine.  There are those who believe that Pinotage was not the result of a deliberate crossing of two vinifera vines, but rather an accidental crossing with a grape called Jacquez, itself a hybrid grape that was widely planted on the island of Madeira for a time after the phylloxera epidemic.  The story goes that some stray pollen granules from a nearby Jacquez vine found their way to the Cinsaut flowers before Dr. Perold was able to pollinate them with Pinot Noir.  Proponents of this theory pointed to characteristics of Pinotage that were seemingly absent in Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, such as thick skins, deep pigmentation and berry shape.  May is ultimately able to disprove this particular legend and to prove the actual parentage of Pinotage by tracking down (and showing) the DNA data that proves without a doubt that Pinotage was the result of crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsaut.

The second half of May's book is devoted to exploring Pinotage today, and is probably aimed more at fanatics and devotees of the grape, which I admittedly am not.  He looks at Pinotage in the vineyard and the winery through the lens of a few South African producers, and also examines the rising popularity of Pinotage in other countries.  I was not aware that New Zealand has almost as long a history with the Pinotage as South Africa, and that many New Zealand Pinotages rival those from the grape's birthplace in terms of quality.  The chapter I was most looking forward to reading is titled "Isn't it Rubbery?" as I have never been able to really enjoy Pinotage based wines because of strong burnt rubber, acetone and farmyard smells and flavors.  The acetone, it turns out, is a result of fermentation temperatures (hot fermentations reduce the presence of isoamyl acetate in the finished wine), and is something that is becoming less and less of a problem.  The accusation of rubberiness, though, is more difficult to explain.  May points to a particularly virulent strain of brettanomyces yeast that is found in South Africa that is a possible cause of some of these flavors.  I will admit that I've found many of these off-flavors in a range of wines from South Africa, not just in Pinotage, and so I buy his explanation to some extent.  The Pinotage aroma wheel, created by the Pinotage Association referenced above, doesn't include rubber or acetone, though whether that's a marketing lie of omission or a good faith representation is hard to say.

As mentioned above, I've never been a fan of Pinotage based wines, but after reading May's book, I was inspired to give the grape a second chance.  I decided to give Pinotage another shot in two different ways.  First of all, I was going to really try to find a high-end Pinotage from a producer that was known for making exceptional wines from the grape.  After reading May's book, I had a good sense of who those producers might be.  Secondly, I was going to try a wine made in a slightly different style, namely a rosé wine, to see what characteristics might be present in each wine.  If both wines were rubbery and nasty, I felt that I could be pretty confident that it was actually the grape itself that I was objecting to, given my previous experiences.  Others may enjoy those kinds of flavors or be less sensitive to them, and that's fine, but they definitely aren't for me.

I went to one of my favorite shops, Curtis Liquors, and picked up two bottles of Pinotage, one a rosé ($15) and one a varietal wine ($35), from Kanonkop, a very highly regarded South African producer profiled in May's book. Kanonkop boasts that their winery is the South African equivalent of a Premier Cru or First Growth on their website, and I figured if these guys couldn't convince me, then I was a lost cause as far as Pinotage was concerned.  I tried the rosé wine first, and it was a fairly deep pink color in the glass.  The nose was fairly intense with fresh strawberry, raspberry and rainier cherry aromas.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  There were flavors of fresh cut watermelon and strawberry as well as some rainier cherry and a little bit of leesy funk.  It clocked in at a whopping 14.5% alcohol, and wore it a little clumsily.  The high alcohol gave a sweet, almost creamy kind of texture to the wine that was interesting, but it also contributed an unwelcome heat as well.  All in all I found it very enjoyable and was relieved to find that none of the negative flavors I had found in previous Pinotage based wines were present here.

The true test, though, was in the varietal Pinotage that I tried next. With some trepidation, I pulled the cork on the 2004 Kanonkop Pinotage and poured myself a taste.  The wine was a deep, opaque inky-purple black color in the glass.  The nose was moderately intense with blackberry, blueberry, mocha and smoke aromas.  There was a hint of rubberiness in the smoke, but I couldn't be totally sure that I wasn't just imagining it.  On the palate the wine was full bodied with fairly high acidity and medium tannins.  There were flavors of blackberry, black cherry, blueberry, smoke, baking spice, mocha, black pepper, bell pepper and a little farmyard funk.  It was dense, deep and incredibly complex with the flavors rolling over the palate seamlessly.  Again, I thought I might have picked up a touch of rubber, but it was very faint and didn't distract at all from the rich, ripe fruits.  This wine was also 14.5% alcohol, but it carried it much more effortlessly.  This was easily the best Pinotage that I had ever tasted and I found it to be an exceptional wine.  If you think you hate Pinotage, try this wine.  If you still don't like it, then there's probably no hope for you.

I wouldn't call myself a Pinotage convert after reading May's book and trying the wines above, but I do have a new respect for the grape and for the wines it is capable of producing.  May is an eager guide, bursting with information and anecdotes, and his enthusiasm for the grape is a bit contagious.  This book is a must read for fans and fanatics of the Pinotage grape, or for those interested in South African wine in general.  The tone is casual and the reading is easy-going, but the information is thoroughly researched, as evidenced by the 230 endnotes scattered throughout the text.  It's a fun and informative book that I very highly recommend.

As noted above, my copy of this book was purchased by me and I was not asked by Peter or his publisher to review it.  My standards for book reviews are the same as for my wine reviews and all opinions expressed above are mine and mine alone.  I have received no compensation for reviewing this book, and suspect that Peter may not even know that I've reviewed it until I send him an email about it in a few minutes.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Folle Blanche (Gros Plant) - Nantais, Loire Valley, France

Folle Blanche was, at one point in time, a very important grape, but not for wine production.  Rather, it was the most important variety grown for the production of Armagnac and Cognac, the famous distilled spirits of western France.  It was the workhorse grape of these regions before phylloxera struck, but once those vineyards were decimated by the pest, the grape was never able to reclaim its former glory.  Plantings have declined throughout the 20th Century from nearly 30,000 acres in 1968 to fewer than 6,500 by 2000.  We'll take a look at some of the reasons for this decline and also take a look at a few table wines made from the grape below.

You might think that whatever grape makes a good wine would also make a great brandy, since brandies are essentially just distilled wines, but it turns out that isn't the case.  The qualities that distillers look for in a base wine for brandy are high acid and light flavor, as heavily flavored base wines apparently make for clumsy brandies while high acids amplify aromas and help balance the finished liquor.  Wines made from Folle Blanche grapes posses both of these characteristics, and for many years the vine was prized for the fine brandies that resulted from its distillation.  The vine was somewhat problematic to grow, though, as it tended to be very vegetatively vigorous and demanded a lot of pruning in order to avoid problems with botrytis bunch rot and black rot, two fungal diseases to which it is particularly prone.  This problem actually got worse after the phylloxera epidemic, as it turned out that Folle Blanche vines became much more vigorous after being grafted onto native American rootstocks.

As we've covered many times on this site, the war against phylloxera was fought on several different fronts.  Once people began to notice that native American grape varieties were largely unaffected by the louse, many people, like Albert Seibel and JF Ravat, tried to create new grape varieties by breeding vinifera vines with native American vines in order to try to retain the quality winemaking characteristics of vinifera with the phylloxera resistance of the other varieties.  One of those hybridizers was François Baco who, in 1898, crossed Folle Blanche with Noah (itself a riparia x labrusca hybrid that is definitely not the same as the Hondarrabi Zuri grape) to create Baco 22A, or Baco Blanc (he also created Baco Noir which also has Folle Blanche as one parent but a different riparia vine for the other).  Baco Blanc also made wines that were lightly flavored and high in acid, but the vines were also resistant to many of the diseases that plagued Folle Blanche vines, and many growers opted for Baco Blanc over Folle Blanche for these reasons.  It turns out that the EU ban on hybrid grapes only applies to quality wine production, so the use of a hybrid vine to make a distilled spirit was legally fine.  Plantings of Baco Blanc have been steadily declining, though (to about 5,000 acres as of 2000), as many Armagnac and Cognac growers have begun either making their own wines from their grapes or trying to sell some of their crop to table wine producers.  Since Baco Blanc is a hybrid, it cannot be used for this purpose, and many growers are opting to plant more Colombard and Ugni Blanc, the other great vinifera vines used in the production of Cognac and Armagnac, in order to have more options for the fruits of their vines.

Folle Blanche is thought to be a half-sibling to many of the great grapes of France. One of its parents has been identified as Gouais Blanc, which was also parent to Romorantin, Chardonnay, Gamay, Auxerrois, Aligoté, Melon de Bourgogne (aka Muscadet) and many others.  Pinot Noir was identified as the other parent for those grapes, but Folle Blanche's other parent is currently unknown.  Folle Blanche has many synonyms, many of which can be confusing.  It is known as Picpoul, or lip-stinger, though it doesn't seem to be related to Picpoul-de-Pinet.  It also has Dolcetto and Ugne Blanche as accepted synonyms, but is not related to the Italian Dolcetto or Ugni Blanc, as far as I know.  It is also known as Enrage, Enrageade and Enrageat, which I just find kind of funny.  The VIVC lists 62 accepted synonyms for Folle Blanche, which you can peruse at your leisure here.  The only one I happened across was Gros Plant, which is commonly used on the labels of wines made from Folle Blanche in the Nantais region at the far western end of the Loire Valley.

I was able to find a bottle of the 2009 Domaine des Troit Toits Gros Plant from my friends at the Spirited Gourmet for around $16.  In the glass the wine was a pale silvery lemon color with greenish tints.  The nose was moderately intense but delicate and subtle with white pear and golden apple fruits along with a touch of lees (the wine is aged sur lie, as you can see at right).  On the palate the wine was light bodied with searingly high acidity.  There were flavors of raw lemon-lime citrus and green apple, but it was difficult to get a bead on anything as the acid was just sky high.  I've had some wines before that people told me were high-acid, but I've never had anything quite like this.  It was just raw, tooth-stripping power that was frankly a little difficult to even drink.  I'm a fan of acidic wines and love sour candy, but this was a little bit too much for me.  If the ideal base wine for brandy is high acid and light flavor, this bottle would seem to be the Platonic ideal.

High acid wines are not only good for distillation, though.  The Champagne region of France has made many fortunes turning the high-acid, underripe juice of grapes into beautiful wines by forcing them through a second fermentation in bottle and trapping the resulting bubbles in the wine.  The second wine that I tried, the NV "Atmosphères" from Jo Landron ($18 from the Wine Bottega), was a traditional method sparkler made from 80% Folle Blanche and 20% Pinot Noir.  In the glass this wine was a medium lemon gold color with big, steady bubbles.  On the nose the wine was fairly intense with funky apple and lemon fruits wrapped up in a freshly baked yeast roll.  On the palate the wine was light bodied with high acidity.  There were flavors of toasted bread, golden apples, lemon juice and fresh yeast rolls again.  This wine was highly acidic, but it was much more manageable and better integrated into the wine.  It wasn't a deeply complex wine, but it was simple and clean and would make a nice aperitif.  It was certainly much more approachable and friendly than its still wine counterpart and, for only $2 more, is a much better value as well.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Malagousia - Chalkidiki, Greece

It really is amazing how many grapes that are currently being used to make wines were nearly extinct before someone discovered them and gave them another chance.  Grapes like Roscetto, Pugnitello, Timorasso, Pecorino, Nascetta, and Casetta (among many others, I'm sure) all fall into this category, and today we can throw Malagousia into that mix as well.  Of all the grapes mentioned above, Malagousia's story most closely resembles that of the Pugnitello grape.  The story with Pugnitello is that in the 1980's, a group of Italian researchers decided to create an experimental vineyard plot populated with vines that they found growing in wild, untended plots and also in small plots farmed only for household use.  They were looking to keep the heirloom varieties of the region alive, and to that end they took cuttings of over 200 different vines and planted them to see if any might have a future as a wine grape.  The vast majority of them didn't, but Pugnitello definitely did, and today Pugnitello is a recognized variety by the National Registry of Vine Varieties and is approved for use throughout Tuscany.

Just a few years before, in the 1970's a Dr. Vassilis Logothetis, who worked at Agricultural University of Thessaloniki in Greece, rented a plot of land from Yiannis Carras, owner of the Domaine Carras winery.  Dr. Logothetis had been traveling throughout Greece and collecting cuttings of rare vines as he went along.  He wanted to plant these cuttings and see if any of the vines might produce grapes that were suitable for making wine.  Malagousia was one of the 27 vines that Dr. Logothetis was experimenting with, and he found it in a town called Nafpaktos, which is  on the southern coast of the Greek mainland, just across the Gulf of Corinth from the Peloponnese peninsula (and very near Patras, home of our old friend Roditis).  Viticulture had been virtually abandoned in Nafpaktos after the Greek Civil War of the 1940's, and Dr. Logothetis took his cutting of Malagousia from one of the many pergolas that had been left to be overrun by the now wild vines growing in the area.  As it turns out, Malagousia is an extraordinarily vigorous vine, requiring multiple prunings throughout the growing year.  While this probably doesn't endear it to many growers, this vigor is perhaps what allowed the vine to survive until Dr. Logothetis's discovery.

At first, Logothetis simply harvested the products of all of his experimental vines and vinified them together in a single lot.  At some point, Evangelos Gerovassiliou, the winemaker at Domaine Carras, took note of the Malagousia vine and decided to plant more of it.  He began making varietal wines from the grape and the early results were extraordinarily promising.  Konstantinos Lazarakis, in his The Wines of Greece, calls the first wines made from the grape "stunning," adding that "the wine had the power of a Chardonnay, the extract of a great Semillon, a great affinity with oak, and an aromatic character that can only be described as unique.  It hints at Muscat, although it is not as sweet, profound, or floral.  The primary fruit level is high, showing ripe peaches and apricots, coupled with hints of fresh green pepper."  The early wines made from the grape in the early 1990's were not only very good, but very successful as well and Malagousia has become one of the most important white grapes grown in Greece.

The vine itself is a bit difficult to manage, though.  As mentioned above, it is very vigorous and while some growers have experimented with various rootstocks to try and limit the vine's growth, many end up just doing a lot of pruning.  The vine is also quite prone to viral infections and is not resistant to drought, which can be a problem in many of the drier regions of Greece.  Gerovassiliou, the winemaker who first noticed the grape's potential, believes that he has identified two different clones (or possibly three, according to this article) of the vine which have different berry sizes.  The smaller-berried clone seems to be more aromatic than the larger-berried clone, but they are generally similar otherwise.  The aromatic profile of the grape (and the wines made from it) is highly dependent on when the grapes are harvested.  If harvested below 11.5% potential alcohol, the aromatics are very muted.  If harvested over 14% potential alcohol, the aromatics run towards the Muscat end of the spectrum and can be overpowering.  The sweet spot seems to be in the 12.5 - 13.5% range.

I was able to pick up a bottle of the 2007 Claudia Papayiami "Alexandra," which is a 100% Malagousia wine from the Chalkidiki region of Greece.  I bought this wine from my friends at the Spirited Gourmet for around $35.  In the glass the wine was a deep lemon gold color.  The nose was moderately intense with subdued aromas of baked apple, lees and toasted nuts along with something vaguely oaky as well.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  There were flavors of creamy pear, ripe apple, oaky vanilla, lemon peel, green apple and toasted nuts.  It was very reminiscent of a moderately oaked Chardonnay, but I didn't find any of the Muscat perfume or stone fruits that Lazarakis attributed to the grape in the description quoted above.  The winery's website lists the current vintage of this wine as 2010, so I wonder if perhaps those are more characteristic of a younger bottle.  This wine certainly wasn't shot or well past its prime, but it was definitely aging.  Fans of oaked Chardonnay will find a lot to like here, which is interesting because the winery's website also indicates that this wine wasn't aged in wood, though it's unclear whether that is always the case or whether that's just for the 2010 wine.  I do have a tendency to see oak where there isn't any (as in one of my Rkatsiteli posts, where a reader kindly corrected my misperception, as did the winemaker in a private email), and it could be the lees aging or the age of the bottle that gives me that oaky sensation.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Padeiro - Vinho Verde, Portugal

About a year ago, I was surprised to find a wine made from the Espadeiro grape in the Vinho Verde region of Portugal while I was visiting my in-laws for Thanksgiving in Pittsiburgh.  It was a spritzy little surprise that I thought really over-delivered for the meager price of $10.  A few months later, I started seeing wines in Boston-area shops made from a grape called Padeiro that were also from the Vinho Verde region of Portugal. Given how similar their names were, I figured there was probably some kind of link between them, but while there doesn't seem to be any evidence that these two grapes are related to one another, just what other grapes they may actually be related to is a complicated story indeed.

The confusion really started for me in Richard Mayson's The Wines and Vineyards of Portugal.  In that book, when you go to look up Padeiro in the index, it redirects you to the entry for the Tinto Cão grape, which is grown mostly in the Douro region of Portugal and is used in Port production.  Tinto Cão was pushed to the brink of extinction in the 1970's because while it is a very high quality vine, it is a very poor yielder and many growers pulled it up in favor of more productive vines.  Mayson notes at the end of his entry that "Tinto Cão is also known as Padeiro in the Basto sub-region of Vinho Verde and Tinta Mata."  None of which is particularly problematic, but when I looked up Padeiro on the Vinho Verde website, they do indicate that the grape is also known as Tinto Cão or Tinto Matias in some regions, but the following description also comes up: "Highly productive, it produces ruby to garnet-red colour wines with a distinctive aroma and taste, harmonious and flavourous (sic)."  Highly productive?  The singularly defining characteristic of the Tinto Cão vine seems to be its extraordinarily low productivity, so it seems pretty unlikely that we're talking about the same grape here.

I decided to take another look at the Espadeiro grape to see what Mayson had to say about it.  The index of Mayson's book directs you to two different entries when you try to look up Espadeiro.  The first is to the Sousão grape while the second is to a grape called Trincadeira Preta.  In the section on Sousão, Mayson mentions that this grape is also known as Vinhão in some parts of Portugal, but in the Basto region of Vinho Verde, it is known as Espadeiro de Basto.  Espadeiro Basto is, in fact, an accepted synonym for Vinhão/Sousão, but it isn't clear whether Mayson is saying that Espadeiro Basto is the same as Espadeiro.   This paper, which is in Portuguese, analyzed several different Portuguese grapes, including Vinhão, Sousão and Espadeiro, and they found that while Vinhão and Sousão were synonymous, Espadeiro was a separate cultivar. So, by extension, Espadeiro and Espadeiro Basto are two different grape varieties, though this isn't exactly clear in Mayson's book.  As for the Trincadeira Preta connection, this paper shows that a grape known as Trincadeira das Pratas, which is the same as Trincadeira Preta, is definitely different from Espadeiro as well (it also shows that neither grape is related to Vinhão/Sousão).

What does all that mean?  Essentially it means that Mayson's book is unreliable when it comes to grape synonymies, and thus we have ample reason to doubt his claim that Padeiro is the same grape as Tinto Cão. Reason to doubt is not the same as proof, though, so our next problem becomes trying to find information that will let us know definitively whether Padeiro is the same as Tinto Cão or any other grape for that matter.  The VIVC does have separate entries for both Padeiro and Tinto Cão, which is a good sign, but Tinto Cão is listed as an accepted synonym for Padeiro as well.  Further, there seems to be a lot of overlap in synonyms between Padeiro and Espadeiro, and at least one paper I read (citation 1 below) seemed to indicate that Padeiro was simply another name for Espadeiro in many places.

I searched for a really long time to try and find a DNA profile for Padeiro, and had virtually given up until I came across this paper, which was essentially announcing the creation of a database of microsatellite DNA for Portuguese grape varieties.  In that paper, the authors give the microsatellite profiles for hundreds of Portuguese grapes, including Padeiro, Tinto Cão and Espadeiro.  I took a look at the data, and sure enough, it was clear that all three grapes were different from one another.  That data was confirmed by another paper (citation 2 below) that gave the same results.

So what does all that mean?  It means that Padeiro is not the same grape as Tinto Cão or Espadeiro.  Further, Espadeiro is not the same grape as Sousão/Vinhão or Trincadeira Preta (aka Tinta Amarela).  Once again, one must be very careful when consulting reference works that do not cite any recent DNA studies, as there has been an avalanche of research just over the past decade or so that has revolutionized the way that we are able to think about and categorize different grape varieties.  Mayson's book is very informative and gives a masterful overview of the history of wine in Portugal and the characteristics of the different wine producing regions, but the section on the grapes is definitely out of date.  The book is out of print and outrageously expensive second hand, so be forewarned if you're looking for definitive information on Portuguese grapes, look elsewhere, but if you're looking for information on Portuguese wine in general, it is an unparalleled English-language resource.

I was able to pick up a bottle of the 2011 Quinta da Raza "Dom Diogo" Padeiro from my friends at the Wine Bottega for around $13.  In the glass this wine was a vibrant pink color with light fizz. The nose was nicely aromatic with cut watermelon, fresh strawberry and rainier cherry fruit.  On the palate the wine was on the lighter side of medium with fairly high acidity and just a light prickle of CO2.  There were flavors of fresh red cherries, strawberries and raspberries backed with just a bit of bitterness from the CO2.  Overall the wine was bright, fresh and very refreshing.  The fruits were lively and prominent, but the zippy acid and the bitter twist at the end gave it nice balance and kept it from being just a liquid fruit cocktail.  I enjoyed this wine with tacos, which is a difficult food to match wine with in my experience, and it performed admirably.  The day I opened it it also happened to be nearly 100 degrees outside and this wine was just perfect in those conditions.  It's a little pricier than some other Vinho Verde wines that I've had, but I still believe that it's a great value at only $13.


1)  Martin, JP, Arranz, C, Castro, ID, Yuste, J, Rubio, JA, Pinto-Carnide, O, & Ortiz, JM.  2011.  Synonymy in grape (Vitis vinifera L.) cultivars of northern Portugal and northwestern Spain.  Acta Horticulturae, 918, pp. 791-798.

2)  Castro, I, Martin, JP, Ortiz, JM, & Pinto-Carnide, O.  2011.  Varietal discrimination and genetic relationships of Vitis vinifera L. cultivars from two major Controlled Appellation (DOC) regions in Portugal.  Scienta Horticulturae, 127(4), pp 507-514.