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.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Book Review - Wine Grapes, by Robinson, Harding & Vouillamoz

When I first learned about the impending publication of the massive Wine Grapes, I was both excited and a little nervous.  I was excited because it looked to be just the kind of thing that could help me a lot in doing research for this blog, but at the same time, I worried that its publication would make me obsolete.  The book purported to be the ultimate guide to wine grapes, and I worried that everything interesting that could be said about many of the grapes that I try would already be said here and there would be no reason for me to continue with this site.  I pre-ordered the book many months in advance and began the waiting process.  That process ended a few months ago with the release (and delivery) of this massive tome, which I've now had some time to read through and put some thoughts together about.

Those who are unfamiliar with some of my other posts should note that I've had some issues in the past with the crew responsible for publishing this book.  This is the same editorial team that is responsible for maintaining the online version of the Oxford Companion to Wine, and many of the findings from this book were previously published through that venue.  In several of my prior posts, I've noted issues or problems that I've found in the online version of the OCW, some of which I addressed to the editors, but none of which were really satisfactorily resolved.  The first involved their entry on Hondarrabi Zuri (link goes to my discussion of the issue), where they claimed that it was actually the same as the American hybrid Noah, while the second involved their publication of an alternate parentage for Emerald Riesling, which turned out to be correct, but which they refused to divulge their source for.  I'm not going to delve back into either of those topics, as I've said all I card to say in those posts, so interested readers are advised to follow the links and read away.

Before I get into the issues I have with this new book, I do want to start out with a list of the things that I really liked about it.

1) It is gorgeous.  The layout is easy to follow and though there is a lot of information presented for most of the grapes, the book never feels overwhelming.  The slipcase is a nice touch as well and I much prefer the burgundy color for the US publication to the cream color for the UK.

2) Most of what is presented is accurate.  The book is thoroughly researched not only from a scientific standpoint, but from a historical and ampelographical one as well.  Much of the information provided is adequately cited and the bibliography is comprehensive.

3) The scope of the work is astounding.  It claims to be a "complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties," and while I didn't count to make sure they're telling the truth, the 7 pound weight and nearly 1,250 pages would seem to indicate that they are.  There is no other single volume available with more information on more grape varieties than this.  No really serious wine adventurer will want to be without this volume for very long.

4) The signed bookplates that the group gave away was a very nice touch.  All you had to do was email your address to someone affiliated with the publication team and they mailed out a book plate signed by all three authors for you to affix to the inside cover of your tome (for free!).  If you haven't ordered the book yet or haven't yet asked for a signed bookplate, you're probably too late, I'm afraid to say, as they only did a few hundred of them.  I'm happy to have received mine and think it was a nice way for the contributors to thank people for laying out some serious cash for this book.

All that said, there are some issues I have with the book.

1) The color plates.  There are 5 sections within the book that contain 8-10 pages of full color reprints of illustrations from a turn of the century (last century) work of ampelography.  These sections are evenly spaced throughout the book.  They're printed on a different kind of paper that is actually a different size (smaller) than the rest of the pages, and when you try to flip through the book, you inevitably land on one of these sections.  They're nice to look at, but they're completely unnecessary and kind of in the way.  The book retails for $175, and one wonders how much of that they could have shaved off by doing away with these.

2) It is sometimes difficult to find exactly the grape you're looking for.  They put a grape's main entry under its most common synonym in the country that is thought to be its ultimate home.  This is fine for most grapes, but you end up with some weird things like having Carignan listed under Mazuelo, which is a synonym I'm only familiar with in Rioja.  The index is helpful for navigating around this issue (which was probably inevitable given the book's scope), but flipping back and forth in a 1,250 page work is no picnic.  There are some guidepost entries throughout the text that redirect you to the proper name, but these are somewhat erratically placed.

3) The research.  This is my biggest issue, and it's what I'm going to spend the bulk of the rest of this review talking about.  If you don't care about it, feel free to close this browser window now and you'll be welcome back when I get back to reviewing unusual wines in the next few days.

The problems I have with the research for this volume fall into two broad categories.  The first category concerns research done by others that is reported in Wine Grapes.  As I mentioned earlier, most of the information in the book is accurate and is well researched, but there are a few places where the research is either sloppy or inaccurate for personal reasons.

For example, I recently wrote about the Fetească Albă grape from Romania, and in that post I lamented that the OCW mentioned that the long-accepted synonymy between this grape and the Leányka of Hungary was inaccurate, but I had some difficulty tracking down their source for the information since it was only cryptically mentioned and not cited.  This assertion is reprinted in Wine Grapes, and 2 citations are given.  One is the paper that I mentioned in my post on Fetească Albă, which has some serious methodological issues and can hardly be taken to be indisputable (please see that post for more details).  The other is this paper from a Hungarian team, which, while interesting, does not actually say anything at all about the relationship between Fetească Albă and Leányka.  It does say that Leányka and a grape called Leányszolo are not identical, but there is no mention at all of Fetească Albă anywhere in the paper.  Citations are great, but only if the research that you're pointing to actually says what you're claiming it says.

As for the charge of inaccuracies due to personal reasons, the example of Ciliegiolo and Sangiovese provides a nice example.  As mentioned in my previous post on the Ciliegiolo grape, the exact relationship between Ciliegiolo and Sangiovese is contentious.  It is known that the two grapes have a parent/offspring relationship, but there are two different theories as to which is the parent and which is the offspring.  The first was reported by Jose Vouillamoz (and several other Italian scientists) in 2007 and they claim that Sangiovese's parents are Ciliegiolo and a grape called Calabrese di Montenuovo (which Vouillamoz & crew supposedly just stumbled across somewhere in Calabria...it is unclear whether it exists in any holding facilities or even whether any other research teams have been able to obtain a sample to test for themselves, all of which will lead into my final issue in the following paragraph).  The second (authored by Di Vecchi Staraz and others, full citations are in my Ciliegiolo post linked above) shows that Sangiovese and a grape called Muscat Rouge de Madére are the parents of Ciliegiolo.  Vouillamoz's results have not been duplicated by any other group, but Di Vecchi Staraz's findings have been duplicated in at least 2 different studies.  Wine Grapes, whose scientific content was edited by Vouillmoz, presents Vouillamoz's findings as if they were the final word on the matter.  The book does make mention of Di Vecchi Staraz's findings, but dismisses them because they "do not fit with the parentage of Sangiovese (Vouillamoz, Monaco et al 2007)," which is question begging of the worst kind.  The book does note that there were other "discrepancies" in Di Vecchi Staraz's findings, but I've not seen those discrepancies indicated anywhere else, and, as mentioned above, there have been 2 studies in the past year that have shown that Di Vecchi Staraz's analysis is correct.*

All of which brings me to my major second concern with some of the research presented in Wine Grapes, which is that it is private research.  There are many posts where the citation for the information provided is given simply as (Vouillamoz).  Vouillamoz has several publications listed in the bibliography of the book, and when one of them is referenced, the year is always given.  These (Vouillamoz) citations represent something different, though, which isn't ever really fully explained in the text.  Vouillamoz maintains a private DNA microsatellite database with information on various grapes that he has either analyzed in the course of his research, or which may have come from other studies that he has read.  Much of the stuff that the OCW has published, and many of the relationships published in Wine Grapes, were "discovered" by Vouillamoz by sifting through the information in his private database, or by Vouillamoz conducting experiments on his own and publishing the results in Wine Grapes for the first time.

As an example, Wine Grapes publishes that Listán Prieto, aka Mission, and Listán Negro from the Canary Islands are actually two different grapes, despite the fact that they have long been considered to be the same variety. Vouillamoz claims that a "study" has shown that Listán Negro actually has a distinct DNA profile, but his citation is "(Vouillamoz; Jorge Zerolo, personal communication)," neither of which can be called a "study" in any meaningful sense.  The information is presented, though, in a way that makes it seem like the finding has been verified by DNA research (there is an icon in the book, that is probably supposed to look like a double-helix but which just looks like a circle with open semicircles on its top and bottom, used to represent when a synonym or a homonym has been "verified" by DNA studies, and that icon is used here), when in fact it seems that it has only been seen in one non-published "experiment."

Here's the problem with this: it isn't science**.  The information that Vouillamoz chooses to publish in this way may be interesting, but it's wrong to consider these findings "scientific" in any way.  There's a process that people have to go through in order for their ideas to be accepted by the wider scientific community.  That process involves not only performing the experiments and analyzing the results, but publishing them in a peer-reviewed journal as well.  If you read through any of the papers I link to on this site, you'll see that they aren't just a guy asking a question and then announcing that he's answered the question.  The paper goes through the entire set-up for the experiment and shows the data obtained from the experiment described.  This process exists so that other scientists (or anybody, really) can analyze your methodology and your results to see whether your experiment actually can give the kind of information that you claim it can and whether it actually does give the information that you claim it does.  The foundation of good science is reproducibility, which means that others should be able to read your paper and perform your experiments themselves to see whether they obtain the same results as you.  Just publishing findings doesn't fly.  You're not right when you make a discovery; you're right when someone else verifies your results.***

I'm not suggesting Vouillamoz doesn't know what he's doing or that he has fabricated results.  What I am saying is that any information that he provides from private research or from any source that is not a scientific journal is unverified.  My issue isn't the publication of unverified findings, but rather that this information is presented to the reader in such a way that is difficult to separate from the more thoroughly researched findings.  It is given to the reader in a format that very closely resembles properly cited findings, so the lazy reader notes the parentheses and moves on, seeing a citation where none exists.  When citing the published results of others, readers can consult that source and decide for themselves whether the findings seem accurate given the description of the experiment and the publication of the data.  This empty citation, though, leads nowhere and does not even have a corresponding entry in the Bibliography.  It is telling us that Vouillamoz did something, but there's no way for us to see what it was.  By just giving the conclusion for this private research, the book is essentially asking us to take Vouillamoz's word that he did everything correctly and that his experiments and/or his interpretations are sound.  Given some of the issues I've encountered previously in his work, that doesn't feel like a safe assumption to make.

I'm not saying that Wine Grapes is worthless because of these issues.  As I said before, the overwhelming majority of the information in the book is accurate, interesting and informative.  What I am saying is that some of the information they present as if it were scientific fact is not that at all and should be taken with a grain of salt.  I feel that the book could have been better if some of the controversies were more thoroughly explained or if some of the posts had less of the authoritarian air that they carry.  Jose Vouillamoz is a good scientist, but asking a single scientist to compile all of the information for this book was probably not the best idea.  What you get is a single expert's bias, which doesn't produce a very scientific result.

My bottom line is that this book is now my first line of research for pretty much every post I'll write from here on out.  It's an incredible resource that I look forward to enjoying for many years.  But like any first line resource, I'm not going to be content to stop my research there, and I will pursue any questions I have as far as I can, or until I feel that they have been thoroughly answered.  Grape genetics is a rapidly moving field that I enjoy following along on the sidelines.  I think in about another decade, the 2nd or 3rd edition of this work may end up being definitive, but we're just not quite there yet.

*The first is mentioned in my post on Ciliegiolo. Citation is: Cipriani, G. et al. The SSR-based molecular profile of 1005 grapevine (Vitis vinifera L.) accessions uncovers new synonymy and parentages, and reveals a large admixture amongst varieties of different geographic origin. 2010. Theoretical and Applied Genetics. 121: 1569-1585.

The second is Lacombe, T., Boursiquot, J.M., Laucou, V., Di Vecchi-Staraz, M., Peros, J.P., & This, P. 2012. Large scale parentage analysis in an extended set of grapevine cultivars (Vitis vinifera L.). Theoretical and Applied Genetics. In press.

**You may argue that I'm missing the point here.  This book is for entertainment purposes and is not intended to be a scientific treatise, you may say.  And you may be right.  But the book is being marketed in such a way and its content is arranged in such a way that the authors clearly want you to think that what they are publishing has been "scientifically proven."  I am arguing that this insinuation is dishonest on their part, as much of the data they are publishing is unproven in a scientific sense. Think I'm overstating their case? The following is the publisher's blurb for Wine Grapes from Amazon.com:

"Using cutting-edge DNA analysis and detailing almost 1,400 distinct grape varieties, as well as myriad correct (and incorrect) synonyms, this book examines grapes and wine as never before. Here is a complete, alphabetically presented profile of all grape varieties of relevance to the wine lover, charting the relationships between them and including unique and astounding family trees, their characteristics in the vineyard, and—most important—what the wines made from them taste like."

Their claim is that they have used "science" or some "science-like substance" to show the truth about many grapes and how they are or are not related to one another.  All I am trying to show is that their methodology isn't always sound, and as a result, some of the conclusions that they reach are hardly as definitive as the confident tone of the blurb and the text itself would lead you to believe.

***As I've pointed out numerous times on this site and a few times in this post, this isn't insignificant stuff (well, it may be in a cosmic sense, but you know what I mean).  Vouillamoz's claim regarding Fetească Albă and Leányka comes from a paper that used samples from a holding facility known to have labeling errors.  This is a methodological issue that requires follow-up research, but we wouldn't know that without the full published paper.  I don't believe that the follow-up research has been done, which only means that the question is currently open until proven otherwise (but if forced to make a decision, you're probably wiser staying away from the findings of a flawed study and opting instead for the belief that the prior hypothesis was correct).  Additionally, Vouillamoz's claim about the relationship between Ciliegiolo and Sangiovese has not been replicated by any other group, and it is unclear whether it can be because of the special nature of one of the purported parents.  If other groups cannot test Calabrese di Montenuovo themselves (and I do not know whether they can or not, but no one else has, as far as I can tell), then we just have to take Vouillamoz's word for it that the grape that he happened to stumble across (he himself says it was "fortuitously sampled") is the long-lost parent of one of the most famous wine grapes in the world. The thing is, we don't have to take his word for it, because we have information from three other publications from three other labs that have all independently shown that Vouillamoz's findings cannot possibly be right, since Sangiovese is itself a parent to Ciliegiolo and is not one of its offspring.  Their methodologies and results relied on grapes and samples that other labs could access and test themselves rather than on one-off field samples and private databases.

UPDATE: I uncovered a bit more on the Ciliegiolo/Sangiovese issue recently, and posted my findings in the comments to this post.  You can read the relevant information here.  

Monday, November 26, 2012

Tressallier (Sacy) - Saint-Pourçain, France

A few months ago, in my post on Romorantin, I told the story of a landmark paper that was published in 1999 which showed that many of the grapes currently cultivated in France all shared the same parentage.  One of the parents was Pinot but the surprising finding was that the other parent was a little known and poorly regarded grape known as Gouais Blanc.  Subsequent research (briefly outlined in my post on Menu Pineau) has shown that Gouais Blanc is likely one of the progenitors of nearly 80 different grapes that we know about today, making it easily the most prolific parent that we know of in today's world of grapes.  I bring this up because today's grape, Sacy/Tressallier, is one of those Pinot x Gouais Blanc offspring, making it a full sibling of Chardonnay, Aligoté, Auxerrois, Melon/Muscadet, Gamay and Romorantin.

Because many of the grapes from the Pinot x Gouais Blanc crossing are so well known, there has been a bit of additional research done on the pair and their offspring.  Most notably, in 2009 a group discovered which grape was the father and which was the mother for all of the grapes known to be the offspring of Pinot and Gouais Blanc.  For most species of animals and plants, it is relatively obvious which of the progenitors is the father and which is the mother.  Most animals have clearly differentiated sexes and it is usually easy to tell which animal actually gives birth, making it very easy to spot the mother.  It can be a bit more difficult in plants since many plants are hermaphrodites, but typically, whichever plant produces the seed or the fruit is the mother while the plant that merely provided the pollen is the father.  This works for sexually propagated crops, but vines are clonally propagated and the actual cross that created a given vine likely happened hundreds of years ago in the wild.  Knowing which vine is the father and which is the mother is a much dicier proposition, but it can be done.

Knowing that an offspring receives 50% of its DNA from each of its parents, it may seem impossible to figure out which 50% is paternal and which 50% is maternal.  Furthermore, it may seem irrelevant, since grapevines are hermaphrodites and don't have sex chromosomes, the matter of maternity and paternity seems like a merely academic exercise at best.  This is not entirely true, though.  The DNA of some of the organelles in plant cells, like mitochondria and chloroplasts, are inherited 100% from the mother, which means that the processes that regulate the vine's metabolism are maternally inherited with no input from the father.  In short, this means that the offspring inherits more than 50% of its DNA from its mother, and so for some things, it absolutely matters which vine was the father and which was the mother.  By examining chloroplast DNA (which is maternally inherited), the study mentioned above was able to determine that Pinot was the father and Gouais Blanc was the mother for 9 of the 12 offspring, including Chardonnay, Aligoté, Romorantin, Gamay Noir, Melon and Tressallier (the 3 with Pinot as the mother are the relatively unknown Aubin Vert, Knipperlé and Roublot).

It was long thought that Tressallier actually came into France via Italy, but the discovery of its parentage makes that story very unlikely.  It is now thought that the vine was born somewhere in Burgundy or in northern France.  Its name "Sacy" comes from a village in Champagne, while the Tressallier name is thought to be a contraction of "trans Alligerim," which means "beyond Allier," because it was once planted on the Allier River.  Like its sibling Gamay, Tressallier was once banned, though this time by the mayor of Vermenton (rather than Philip the Bold), who, in 1782, decried it for producing "dull, poor-quality wine."  Though widespread several hundred years ago, its plantings have fallen precipitously lately to only around 12 hectares as of 2008, down from 655 in 1958.  It is authorized for use in the Saint-Pourçain region, which is right in the middle of France, where it is permitted to make up only 20-40% of the blend and is typically blended with Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.  It is also permitted in the production of Cremant de Bourgogne, though it isn't widely used there.

The first wine that I was able to try was the 2009 Calnite Blanc from Famille Laurent a Saulcet, which is about 70% Chardonnay, 25% Tressallier and 5% Sauvignon Blanc.  This bottle was provided to me as a sample from the fine folks at Oz Wine Company.  In the glass the wine was a medium lemon gold color.  The nose was fairly intense with aromas of lemon, golden apples, white flowers, cantaloupe and bread dough.  On the palate, the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  There were flavors of white pear, golden apple, green melon and a touch of lemony citrus leading to a clean, stony mineral finish.  There was a lot of mouth-watering acidity, but the flavor profile was pretty broad, lacking that zip and zing that I like in my white wines.  This bottle is mostly Chardonnay, and it definitely tastes like it, but it is still a very nice wine.  I'm not sure what this typically retails for, but I think it's in the $20 - $30 range, and it's definitely worth that.  Given the low percentage of Tressallier in the blend, it's not a great way to to get a real sense for the grape, though.

For that, I picked up the 2009 Domaine de l'Orme "Les Grands Vaux" Tressallier.  I picked up this vintage from my friends at Curtis Liquors for about $15, though I've seen the newer vintage (2011) at the Wine Bottega as well.  In the glass, the wine was a medium lemon gold color.  The nose was reserved with some pear and a bit of lime peel, but little else.  On the palate, the wine was on the lighter side of medium with fairly high acidity.  There were delicate flavors of lemon-lime citrus and white peach along with a clean, stony minerality on the finish.  It wasn't terrifically complex, but the flavors were clean and very pure with a wonderfully fresh vibrancy.  It had more of the zip and zing to it that I like, but it was also very well balanced.  I don't have any idea what the grape breakdown is with this wine, because typically when a variety is stated on the label, it must be made from at least 85% of that grape, but it also has Saint-Pourçain on the label, and I thought that the Saint-Pourçain AOC only allowed up to 40% Tressallier.  I've been told that this wine is 100% Tressallier, so that's what I'm assuming, but I can't really find any verification of that online.  In any case, it's a very nice wine, especially for the price, and is the sort of thing you should definitely pick up if you ever run across it.  Tressallier is increasingly difficult to find, but it is capable of making very nice wines.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Menu Pineau (Arbois/Orbois) - Loire Valley, France

Menu Pineau was not a grape that I intentionally set out to try.  When I bought the bottle that I'll be reviewing below, I thought that it was made mostly from the Romorantin grape with a dash of something called Orbois tossed in for good measure.  It's a French wine that is bottled as a vin de table, which means that the producer is not allowed to mention any grape names, vintage information or regional information on the front or the back labels, so all I had to go on was the store owner's word.  When I got home later and looked the wine up online, the producer's website indicated that the grape mixture was actually the reverse of what the shop owner had told me (about 80% Menu Pineau and 20% Romorantin)*.  This actually turned out to be a great thing for me, since I had a few other examples of Romorantin to write about and had nothing from the Menu Pineau grape, so the result of the happy accident is today's post.

Menu Pineau is a very old grape that has been cultivated in the Loire Valley since at least the 16th Century, where it was first mentioned in print by François Rabelais.  When I went to tag today's entry, I was surprised to see that I already had an Arbois tag, since I didn't remember ever writing about this grape before, but it turns out that I have previously used the Arbois tag to refer to the Arbois sub-region of the Jura and not to the grape.  The two names are apparently completely unrelated, as Menu Pineau has not ever been cultivated in the Jura, according to Robinson & Co. in Wine Grapes.  They say that the Arbois/Orbois name is a corruption of the name Herbois, which is what the grape was called in the Loir-et-Cher region where it is most widely grown.  In the local dialect, Herbois was spelled/pronounced Orboé or Orboué, which ultimately became Orbois and then Arbois.  It is officially known as Orbois in France, as Arbois Blanc in the VIVC database, and as Menu Pineau in Wine Grapes.

The Menu Pineau name may lead you to believe that it is somehow related to Pinot Noir or to the Pinot family of grapes, but that doesn't appear to be the case.  It was named Menu Pineau to differentiate it from Gros Pineau, which is another name for Chenin Blanc, which is widely grown in many of the same areas as Menu Pineau.  Gros means large and menu means small, while Pineau (or Pineau de la Loire) has just historically been one of Chenin Blanc's many names.  Menu Pineau does seem to have a parent/offspring relationship with Gouais Blanc, the other half of the famous Pinot x Gouais duo (see my post on Romorantin for more details) that was responsible for so many of the grapes we enjoy today.  This means that Menu Pineau is a half-sibling of all the grapes from that crossing, but more amazingly, is also at least a half sibling of at least 78 other grapes.  This study (in French...the link is to the download page, which will allow you to DL the entire bulletin...the relevant paper is the first one in the bulletin) shows that Gouais Blanc shares 50% of its DNA markers with these 78 grapes, meaning that it is likely one of the parents for nearly all of them.  The list includes such luminaries as Riesling, FurmintJacquèreFrâncuşă,  Grolleau, Colombard, Folle Blanche, and Muscadelle, among many others.

Menu Pineau is authorized for use in a handful of AOC wines in the northern Loire Valley, but it is being phased out of at least one major one.  As of 2016, Menu Pineau will be forbidden in AOC wines from Touraine (as will all other white grapes not named Sauvignon...only Sauvignon Gris and Sauvignon Blanc will be permitted).  Sauvignon Blanc has actually supplanted Menu Pineau in most of the areas in which the grape was once widely cultivated, as plantings in France have fallen from almost 1500 hectares in 1968 to fewer than 300 hectares in 2004.  It is generally faulted for having low acidity, and when it shows up, it typically shows up as a minor blending component to cut the acid of its more popular running-mates Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.  There are a handful of producers making varietal wines from the grape, but I haven't been able to track any of them down.

I was able to pick up the 2007 Julien Courtois "Originel" bottling, which, as mentioned above, is about 80% Menu Pineau and 20% Romorantin.  This wine is bottled as a vin de table, so the vintage information is buried in a lot number on the back of the bottle (and I may be misinterpreting it), while the grape breakdown comes from the producer's website.  I picked this bottle up from my friends at the Wine Bottega for around $35.  In the glass the wine was a medium golden bronze color and was a little bit hazy.  The nose was intense with apple cider, peach and honeysuckle aromas.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acidity.  There were flavors of apple cider and fresh cut green apples along with apricot, honey and lemony citrus.  The acidity was surprisingly sharp here and was a bit too much to handle at room temperature.  Cellar temp or just slightly colder was the way to go, as the flavors became very muted at fridge temp.  I really liked the balance between the fresh fruits and the slight oxidation in the wine and found the wine enjoyable on the whole.  It is a bit pricey, but I don't think it's overpriced for what you get.  It's actually a great Fall wine that would probably provide a lot of interesting pairings at the Thanksgiving table, if you're looking for a nice oddball wine to serve your guests.

*I want to be clear that I think it's amazing how much most wine shop workers know and remember about their stock off the top of their heads, especially considering the crazy kinds of questions I sometimes throw at them.  Matt at the Wine Bottega is an unbelievable fount of knowledge and this anecdote isn't intended to cast any aspersions on him or his store.  The whole crew at the Bottega are insanely knowledgeable and just all around good people.  The anecdote is merely to explain a happy accident that resulted in me getting something more interesting than I bargained for (I had a similar experience with the Kanzler grape as well).  Not all mistakes are bad things...think about the discovery of penicillin or Champagne or possibly even wine itself for examples of mistakes or accidental discoveries leading to wonderful new things.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Boal/Bual/Gual/Malvasia Fina - Madeira, Portugal and Canary Islands, Spain

When I decided to try and write about each of the major Madeira grapes, I really wasn't anticipating any problems or confusion.  Everything I had read said that there were four major grapes that produced four different styles of Madeira.  Easy peasy.  I got through two of the four major grapes, Sercial and Verdelho, with little problem, but then I came up against Boal, and things started to get a little dicey.  It turns out that there are a handful of grapes that are called Boal or Bual and unless you are familiar with some of the recent legislation regarding grape names in Portugal, you may be misled in your search for information about the Boal of Madeira.  You might be inclined, as I was at first, to think that Boal Branco is the grape you're after...after all, it does list Boal de Madere as one of its synonyms.  It turns out that Boal Branco, which is sometimes used a synonym for Sémillon in the Douro Valley, is actually a very obscure grape that is hardly cultivated any more (at least according to Wine Grapes, the massive new grape book from Jancis Robinson & Co. that I hope to review very shortly).

If you're looking for Boal, you actually need to start looking in that tangled web of grapes that is the Malvasia "family."  I have "family" in scare quotes, because it turns out that many of the grapes called Malvasia Something are actually not related to one another at all.  The story goes that these grapes are ultimately named for the port of Monemvasia in Greece, which was at one time (many hundreds of years ago) a major hub for wine commerce.  There were many different sweet wines coming out of the port of Monemvasia, and it is thought that the place name became a kind of substitute for the grape name and many of the wines being shipped out of there just came to be called vinum de Malvasias or some variant of that.  Before the heyday of ampelography (and, more recently, DNA analysis), it was probably the case that any grape making wines similar in style to these wine were called Malvasia, regardless of whether they were related to any of the grapes making the wines coming out of Monemvasia or not.  Wines with "Malvasia" somewhere in their name are genetically and geographically diverse, which would seem to lend credence to a stylistic basis for the common root rather than a genetic one.  Malvasia grapes are especially common in Italy, Spain and Portugal and there have been numerous studies done to try and see how they are (or are not) related to one another.  Many of the Malvasias do have some kind of genetic connection, but there are others that are obvious outliers, so if we speak of Malvasia as a family, we really are only doing so in a linguistic sense.

All of which is wonderful, but what does any of this have to do with Boal, you may be asking.  Well, in the year 2000, the Portuguese authorities officially renamed the Boal/Bual grape Malvasia Fina (Boal is the Portuguese name while Bual is the Anglicization of it...remember that Madeira was a British dominated market for a very long time and the British apparently had a tough time with the "oa" diphthong  so they changed it to "ua"...go figure).  This wasn't done on a whim, but rather based on genetic and ampelographic information that showed that these two grapes were actually one and the same (and also showed that Malvasia Fina had a parent/offspring relationship with another grape known as Boal Ratinho).  Malvasia Fina is one of the Portuguese specialties of Malvasia and it is grown on about 2,200 hectares throughout that country.  It is mostly found in the Douro, where it is thought to have originated, and the Dão in the northern part of the country, but it is really grown throughout Portugal, as evidenced by its appearance on Madeira and the Azores islands.

Those familiar with the wines of Madeira may be starting to wonder about something right about now.  The four styles of quality Madeira are Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey, and Malmsey is supposed to be made from Malvasia grapes.  Is the Malvasia used for Malmsey the same or different from the Malvasia Fina used for Bual?  This question was much more difficult to answer than I had thought as nearly all sources that I consulted simply say that Malmsey is made from Malvasia grapes with no further elaboration.  I actually put off even writing this post until my copy of Wine Grapes arrived, as I was hopeful that they could shed some light on it.  According to them, the grape used for Malmsey production on Madeira is a variety known as Malvasia Branca de São Jorge, which doesn't appear to be grown anywhere else or used for any other wines.  We'll get into more detail about it when I take a look at a Malmsey Madeira, but for now, suffice it to say that it is a distinct variety of Malvasia from Malvasia Fina, and wines labeled Bual and Malmsey are made from different grape varieties.

Having sorted all of that out, I still wasn't quite out of the woods.  I also had picked up a wine from the Canary Islands of Spain which was labeled as Gual and which I was told (and had no reason to disbelieve)  was made from the Bual grape of Madeira.  When I tried to search for Gual in the VIVC database, though, the only result that came back showed that Gual was a synonym of Albillo Mayor, the recently proven parent of Tempranillo that I'm not sure whether I tried or not.  After a bit of digging, I found this paper (in Spanish) which seems to confirm that the Gual of the Canary Islands is in fact the same as the Bual/Boal/Malvasia Fina of Madeira.

On the ascending sweetness scale for Madeira wines, Bual sits in third position, generally a little sweeter than Verdelho, but not as sweet as Malmsey.  I was able to try the NV Boston Bual from Vinhos Barbeito, which I picked up locally for around $40. In the glass the wine was a medium tawny brown with a kind of greenish-yellow tint at the rim.  The nose was intense with very nutty aromas of raisin and burnt sugar.  On the palate, the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acidity.  It was medium-sweet with flavors of burnt sugar, dark caramel, tart apple, crème brûlée, toasted nuts, maple syrup and raisins.  It was very well balanced wine, as many of these Historic Series Madeiras are, with a really lovely mix of acid and sugar that made it very easy to drink.  It was not as searingly acidic as the Sercial and was a bit richer than the Verdelho, and would be an easy slam dunk with nut or caramel based desserts.  I plan on serving the Malmsey from this same line with a pecan pie this coming Thanksgiving, and will report the results when I write about that grape and wine.

The second wine that I tried was the 2008 Vinatigo Gual from the Ycoden Daute Isadora region of Tenerife in the Spanish Canary Islands.  I picked this wine up from my friends at the Spirited Gourmet for around $32.  In the glass the wine was a medium lemon gold color.  The nose was fairly intense with aromas of apricot, cantaloupe, honey and red grapefruit.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acidity.  There were flavors of leesy dried apricot and cantaloupe fruit along with a bit of honeysuckle flower as well.  It was difficult to find a good temperature to drink this at, as it was a bit too alcoholic at room temperature, but was also too austere and bitter at fridge temp.  Cellar temperature or a little bit cooler seemed to really be the sweet spot for the wine.  It's a nice, interesting wine, but is difficult to justify at the price point.  I'd much rather pay the little bit extra for the Madeira and enjoy Bual in its traditional incarnation.  Those interested in finding out what the wine might taste like before it finishes its journey to becoming Madeira may be better served tracking down a Malvasia Fina from mainland Portugal if price is a concern, but those interested in an island wine showing a different side of the grape should definitely give this a shot.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Incrocio Bruni 54 - Marche, Italy

Today I'm going to do something I don't typically do.  I usually try to make sure that for any grape that I write about, I either try a wine that is at least 50% from that grape (though 75% is even better), or I move the post to Weird Blend Wednesday and write about wines made from several different unusual grapes, none of which make up majority of a given bottling.  I really try not to write about grapes that make up a minority portion of a bottling, and I have been mostly successful in avoiding that, but today I'm going to make an exception.  The only wine I could find that contained today's grape, Incrocio Bruni 54, only had about 25% of it in the blend, while the other 75% was made from Pecorino.  I certainly could have included this wine in my post on the Pecorino grape, but chances are pretty good that I won't be coming across any wines with a higher percentage of Incrocio Bruni 54 any time soon (though there is at least one producer who makes a varietal wine from it).  As of the 2004 Italian agricultural census, there were only 13 hectares (about 32 acres) of Incrocio Bruni 54 under vine in Italy, which essentially means there are only 13 hectares being grown in the world.  It is cultivated basically only in the Marche and is allowed in the DOC wines of Colli Maceratesi, but can make up no more than 30% of the blend there.

Incrocio is an Italian word that means "crossing," and there are a handful of Incrocio grapes that are planted to varying degrees in Italy.  These are grapes that were created either by private Italian breeders or by people working at various research institutes throughout Italy.  The most common and perhaps best known is Incrocio Manzone, also known as Manzone Bianco, which I'll be writing about in a separate post very soon.  Pretty much all of the Incrocio grapes follow the same naming convention: they all usually start with Incrocio (though occasionally this word is dropped) and then the word after Incrocio is usually the name of the breeder who created the grape, who in this case was Bruno Bruni, and the number refers to the specific selection of grape.  Sometimes these grapes are given "regular" names, but most of them seem to be stuck with these cumbersome long-form names.  Bruni created hundreds of crossings in his lifetime, but like most grape breeders, only a handful of them proved to have much value as wine grape cultivars.  The VIVC database has a fairly extensive listing of grapes created by Bruni, but it seems as though only number 54 has had any kind of staying power (though many of his creations are table grapes, so they may be more widely grown and known, but I'm not even sure how to check something like that).

Bruni was working in the early part of the 20th Century in the Marche region of Italy and many of his crossings were created between 1930 and 1950.  There either isn't any biographical information on the man online, or I'm just unable to find it underneath all of the results for an Italian sculptor also named Bruno Bruni.  In any case, our man Bruni published a paper (titled "Nuove varieta' di uve da vino 'Incrocio Bruni 54'") announcing his new grape in 1964.  The given parentage was Sauvignon Blanc x Verdicchio, and virtually every resource currently in print lists gives this as the accepted pedigree for the grape.  In a massive study done in 2010 (citation 1), though, the grape's parentage was revealed to be Aleatico x Lacrima.  I haven't been able to find this result corroborated in any other studies (which isn't surprising given the grape's limited plantings and importance), but the VIVC database is sufficiently convinced to list this as the grape's official parentage.

The wine that I was able to try with Incrocio Bruni 54 in it was the 2010 Fontezoppa Marche Bianco which, as mentioned above, is about 25% Incrocio Bruni 54 and 75% Pecorino.  I picked this bottle up locally for around $12.  In the glass the wine was a pale silvery lemon color with greenish tints.  The nose was fairly intense with white pear, lemon, lime, green apple and pineapple aromas.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  There were flavors of white pear, ripe red apples, lemony citrus, orange pith and green melon along with a kind of chalky minerality on the back end.  It was similar in style and in flavor to the Colle Vecchio Pecorino I wrote about in my post on that grape, but this wine was a little broader, fatter and blander than that one.  This wine is certainly not a fair representation of what Incrocio Bruni 54 might taste like, but it does give a sense of how the grape is used when it is used at all.  If I ever run across one of those rare varietal bottlings of this grape, I'll be certain to try it and post about it here, but until then, this is probably the best I can do.


Cipriani, G, et al (seriously, there are 14 authors on this paper).  2010.  The SSR-based molecular profile of 1005 grapevine (Vitis vinifera L.) accessions uncovers new synonymy and parentages, and reveals a large admixture amongst varieties of different geographic origin.  Theoretical and Applied Genetics.  121, pp. 1569-1585.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Mavrodaphne - Patras, Greece

It isn't often that you can trace the emergence of a grape and a style of wine to a particular winery or even a particular year, but with Mavrodaphne, we can do just that.  In 1859, a Bavarian gentleman by the name of Gustav Clauss bought some land in Achaia, in the neighborhood of Riganokampos near the city of Patras.  Patras, as we learned when we took a look at the Roditis grape, is located at the very top of the Peloponnese Peninsula in Greece (map).  Gustav was initially interested in growing blackcurrants, but he planted a few vines on his 60 acre spread as well.  In 1861, he founded the Achaia Clauss winery on his property and began making wines from the local Mavrodaphne grape.

There is a story that says that Gustav named his wines after a girlfriend or lover he had named Daphne, but there are indications that they grape was grown in this area prior to Clauss's arrival (some sources say he brought the grape from one of the many nearby islands, but that doesn't seem to be quite right either).  Prior to Clauss's arrival, most of the wines made from the grape in the area were regular table wines that were a little bit sweet, but Clauss decided to use some of the techniques used in Port production to create a different kind of wine.  He stopped fermentation short by introducing neutral grain spirits, which allowed the wine to retain more of its natural sugar while boosting the alcohol level.  He then put the sweet fortified wines in open oak barrels and aged them for several years.  Prior to the mid 20th Century, the wines were aged in casks outdoors for six years, but today they're aged indoors for around eight years (though some of the higher end bottlings are aged for many decades).  The Achaia Clauss winery pioneered this style of Mavrodaphne and they are still selling their version of it today, though they're not the only game in town anymore by any stretch of the imagination.  Mavrodaphne is increasingly made into still, dry table wines, but these are still in a distinct minority and are very difficult to find.

There are a handful of grapes throughout Greece either with the word mavro in their name (see Mavrotragano and Xinomavro for two we've covered here) or which are known simply as Mavro, and some have thought that these grapes may be related.  As far as I know, no relationship has been found between these grapes, which makes sense when you recall that mavro is just the Greek word for "black," and is used in much the same way as noir or nero in France or Italy (the daphne part of the name just means "laurel"*).  It is a thick-skinned grape that grows in fairly loose bunches and can suffer badly from overproduction, so yields must be kept in check to prevent thin, diluted wines.  The vine is highly susceptible to both drought conditions and some forms of mildew, so the water given to and around the vines must be carefully monitored.

There are at least two clonal variants of Mavrotragano discussed in Konstantinos Lazarakis' The Wines of Greece.  The more common one, which is grown mainly in the area of Achaia, is known as Regnio, and is distinguished by its tighter bunch formations and different leaf shape.  The other clone is known as Tsigelo and it is characterized by its smaller bunches and, some say, higher quality wines.  Mavrodaphne is grown mostly in the area around Patras, but there is also some grown on the island of Cephalonia where it is made into a similar style of wine.  The Cephalonians claim that they use a superior clone of Mavrodaphne, but it looks like their clone is very closely related to Tsigelo.  There is also a Cephalonian grape called Thiniatiko, which may be the same as the Tsigelo clone of Mavrodaphne, or which may only be closely related.

I was able to try two different Mavrodaphne wines.  Both of them were from Patras, both were in this sweet fortified style, and I picked up both of them from Wollaston Wine and Spirits.  The first wine was the NV Mavrodaphne from Cambas winery, which cost around $11.  In the glass, the wine was a fairly light tawny purple color.  The nose was moderately intense with raisin and prune fruits along with a bit of dusty leather.  On the palate, the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acidity.  It was pretty sweet with flavors of raisin, fig, chocolate, burnt sugar, molasses, dulche de leche, dried cranberries and prunes, which is an awful lot to have going on for only $11.  The wine is 15% alcohol, but it carries it well and doesn't come across hot at all.  I kept the bottle on my counter with only a cork on the top of it for a few weeks, and it was drinking consistently well throughout that time period.  It's kind of like a slightly oxidized ruby port, but at a much nicer price point.  I enjoyed it so much, I actually went back to the store so that I could try the other Mavrodaphne wine that they had in stock.

That wine was the NV Achaia Clauss "Imperial," which also had a retail price of $11.  For some reason, Achaia Clauss doesn't have this wine listed on their website, but I was surprised to see that in their higher end Mavrodaphne wines, there is actually a very high percentage of a grape called Black Corinthian.  Markus over at the always excellent Elloinos explains that the regulations for Mavrodaphne of Patras allow for up to 49% (!) of Black Corinthian.  Achaia Clauss actually does use the entire 49% in the wine that's one step up from this one (the "601") on their quality ladder, so I'm guessing the percentage is similarly high here.  In the glass, this wine was a fairly deep brownish-tawny color.  The nose was powerfully intense with aromas of raisin, prune, fig, baking spice, caramel and scorched brown sugar.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acidity.  Again, it was sweet with flavors of raisin, prune, fig, burnt sugar, smoke, brown sugar, caramel, baking spice and even some black pepper.  This wine was also 15% alcohol, but seemed to be wearing it a little more clumsily.  It was still a phenomenally deep and complex wine, though, that really over delivered on its meager price tag.  This also sat around on my counter top for a few weeks without suffering for it at all.  It threw a pretty heavy sediment, which surprised me a little, but isn't something that I have any kind of problem with.  I preferred it to the Cambas Mavrodaphne, but wouldn't hesitate to recommend either one of them

Much of the information in this post is from:

Lambert-Gocs, Miles.  1990.  The Wines of Greece.  Faber & Faber, London, UK.

Lazarakis, Konstantinos.  2005.  The Wines of Greece.  Mitchell-Beazley, London, UK.

*The myth goes that there was once a wood nymph named Daphne who never wanted to get married, like the goddess Diana.  One day, Apollo saw her and fell in love with her and began to pursue her through the forest for his own amorous ends.  Daphne called out to her father for help and, knowing that he could not stop Apollo directly, he turned her into a laurel bush.  Apollo was a freaky guy, but apparently not freaky enough to get it on with a bush, so he moved along and that's supposedly how the laurel bush got its name.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Early Muscat - Rogue Valley, Oregon, USA

As I've mentioned many times before (such as in my posts on Emerald Riesling and Symphony), I'm a big fan of Dr. Harold Olmo.  Olmo was perhaps the most prolific and successful grape breeder in the history of the United States, but he was also a leading figure in many other areas of viticulture as well.  He was an early proponent of clonal selection, and this lengthy obituary (he died in 2006) of him credits him with changing California's relationship with the Chardonnay grape.  For many years, Chardonnay was unpopular in California because it wasn't very productive and the wines made from it weren't that great.  Olmo tested several different clonal variants of the grape to try and find more productive and higher quality vines, and it is thought that his success in this endeavor is responsible for Chardonnay's extraordinary popularity today.  Whether that's a good thing or not from a taste perspective is a very different question from whether it's a good thing or not from an economic perspective   Regardless of what your own personal feelings are about the Chardonnay grape, the fact remains that it has become a significant cash crop for California winemakers because the quality and the quantity of the grapes being grown is higher.

Not all of Olmo's discoveries and projects were such unequivocal successes.  Many of the grapes that he created for wine production were intended to be high-cropping vines that had good disease resistance and which could be grown in some of the hotter and drier regions of California where traditional vinifera varieties were unsuccessful.  Many of the grapes that he created are still grown in California today, though you rarely see any of their names on bottles because much of their production ends up as bulk wine.  Some people may see this as a failure on Olmo's part or may wish to criticize him for breeding bulk wine grapes, but one must remember that this was really what he was trying to do, and he was remarkably successful at it.  One should also note that while most of the production from these grapes ends up as bulk wine, some producers do try to make quality wines from them by limiting yields and carefully managing the vines in the vineyard and the results of their care can be very good in their own right.

Harold Olmo created table grapes in addition to creating wine grapes, and many of his creations can still be found on your supermarket shelves.  The first few grapes that Olmo released (in 1946 and 1958) were actually table grapes, as there was a big push at this particular time to create more seedless table grapes to supplement the Thompson seedless, which, for quite some time, was actually the only seedless table grape available in the US.  Many of his creations used various Muscat grapes as one of the parents (or somewhere in the pedigree), as the intense aromas and high sugar contents that the Muscat family was able to pass along to its offspring were very popular with consumers.  Olmo's first grape release was the table grape Perlette in 1946 (one of whose parents was the aforementioned Thompson seedless).  There were a handful of others over the next few years and then in 1958, Early Muscat was released (the actual crossing was purportedly in 1940, but quality trials take a really long time...Symphony, for example, was also first crossed in 1940 but wasn't released until 1981).

Early Muscat was created by crossing Muscat de Hamburg with a grape called Reine des Vignes in France and Koenigin der Weingaerten in German, both of which translate to "Queen of the Vineyards" (and which was the other parent for Olmo's first grape, Perlette).  Reine des Vignes was created by Hungarian breeder János Mathiász in 1916 by crossing a grape called Queen Elizabeth with Pearl of Csaba (which, incidentally, is also one of the parents of Irsai Olivér).  Pearl of Csaba was itself created in 1904, and one of its parents was called Muscat Courtillier, which is also known as Muscat Précoce de Saumur.  The "précoce" in the name means early, and the grape is known for its early ripening and short growing season, which makes it a popular choice among grape breeders.  This early ripening quality was passed along through the family tree, and, together with the Muscat flavors from its great-grandfather and its father, created the grape we now know as Early Muscat.

Early Muscat, like many of its forebears and relatives, was initially created as a table grape variety.  As we discussed in my post on the Lakemont and Himrod grapes, the qualities that breeders are looking for in a table grape are rarely the same as the qualities you'd want in a wine grape.  For the most part, table grapes are bred to be prolific yielders without any seeds and with very thin, mostly flavor-neutral skins.  It is possible to make wine from these grapes, but it is generally inadvisable.  Some winemakers do occasionally try it, though, and occasionally it works out well.  A few years back, some winemakers in Oregon noticed that Early Muscat grew really well there and decided to experiment with it.  It wasn't exactly a phenomenon, but these days a handful of different producers do grow the grape and make wine from it (which is, apparently, sometimes difficult to buy as consumers snatch up the wines almost as soon as they hit the shelves).

One of those producers is Del Rio Vineyards, located in the Rogue Valley of southwestern Oregon.  Del Rio makes a wine called Rose Jolee, which I picked up from my friends at the Spirited Gourmet for around $10.  The most recent information on the winery's website indicates that the current blend for this wine (listed as NV on the PDF, but 2011 on the actual website) was 63% Early Muscat, 17% Riesling and 20% "red blend."  The 2009, which is the wine that I tried, is actually labeled Early Muscat, which means that it must have at least 90% of the stated variety in it,*  though it's obvious that there's still some "red blend" in this wine because Early Muscat is a white grape and this is a fairly deep salmon pink wine with a very light fizz to it.  The nose was intensely aromatic with strawberry, peach and lychee fruit along with fresh flowers and orange blossoms.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  It was pretty sweet with just a faint prickle of CO2.  There were flavors of strawberry candy, peaches, mandarin oranges and something a bit grapey as well.  The flavor profile was very fruity and kind of candy-ish, with the wine tasting a bit like cotton candy at times as well.  It wasn't aggressively floral, as some Muscat-based wines can be.  It's a summer slammer wine, really, that is meant to be gulped and gulped quickly for maximum enjoyment, and if you approach it with that kind of mindset, you'll probably find a lot to like about it.  It's not complex or deep or profound, but it is tasty and easy to drink and I'm totally fine with that sometimes.

*Remember that the rules are a little different in Oregon.  In California and most of the rest of the US, if a variety is stated on the label, the wine only has to be composed of at least 75% of the stated variety.  Oregon's laws dictate that the stated variety must make up at least 90% of the wine, which explains why the bottle on the PDF shelftalker from their website does not have any varietal designation, if the most recent bottlings are only 63% Early Muscat.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Fetească Albă - Cotnari, Romania

It's been quite awhile since we visited the land of Romania.  Several years back I wrote a post about a blended white wine from Romania that I tried that contained three Romanian grapes heavy on the diacritical marks: Fetească Albă, Frâncuşă and Tămâiosă.  Romanian wine isn't that easy to find in my neck of the woods, so it has taken awhile for me to revisit this country, but I've recently found a few interesting Romanian wines and hope to be able to write about some of them over the next few weeks.  One of the wines that I was able to find was a varietal Fetească Albă, and that's the one I'd like to write about today.

I gave a brief capsule history of Romania and Romanian wine in my prior post, so interested readers are advised to skim that piece for more information on those topics.  In brief, Romanian wine is still struggling to recover after decades of rule by the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was only overthrown in 1989.  Romania has a rich history of wine making and was considered for many years to be among the greatest wine producing nations in the world, but they found themselves on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain in the early to mid 20th Century and they have struggled to re-emerge onto the world wine market.  They are currently about 12th in total production in the world, but Romanian wines are still difficult to find on American shelves.

There are actually three different Fetească grapes.  Fetească Neagră is a black skinned grape that does not appear to actually be related to the other Fetească grapes at all.  The two white-berried forms are Fetească Albă and Fetească Regală, which are sometimes said to be subvarieties of the same grape, which isn't really accurate.  Some sources also indicate that Fetească Regală is the offspring of Fetească Albă and Grasă de Cotnari, but this was disproven by a Hungarian research team in 2009 (citation 1).  Many of the grapes grown in Romania are also grown in Hungary, but the names of the grapes are often very different.  The Hungarian study looked at a grape they called Királyleányka, which is the same as the Fetească Regală of Romania.  They reported that the given pedigree for this grape was Leányka and Kövérszölö, which are Fetească Albă and Grasă de Cotnari, respectively.  They were able to rule out Grasă de Cotnari as one of the parents, but they also showed that there was almost certainly a parent/offspring relationship between Leányka and Királyleányka (incidentally, it turns out that the other parent for Fetească Regală is actually Frâncuşă, which was in the blend I wrote about previously (citation 3)).

I've reverted to using the Hungarian names rather than the Romanian ones there because there is apparently some controversy over whether Leányka is actually the same grape as Fetească Albă.  They have long been thought to be identical not only because they look very similar, but also because their names roughly translate to the same thing in their respective languages ("maiden's grape" or "young girl's grape").  Though nearly every resource I've read indicates that they are the same grape, the Oxford Companion to Wine cryptically mentions in both their entries on Fetească Albă and Leányka that an Austrian research team has shown that the two grapes are actually genetically distinct.  It took several hours of intense searching to even find the abstract for the paper I believe that the OCW is referencing, but I believe that I finally found it (citation 2). Though I wasn't able to read the paper, I did read the abstract, and something struck me. The relevant portion of the abstract is copied below.

"The cv. Feteasca alba is not identical to Leanika (Mädchentraube), therefore the supposed definition as synonymous cultivars is obsolete. The cv. Kiraly Leanika could be evaluated as an individual cultivar. However, synonyms were detected by comparing Chasselas de Courtillier and Madleine Royale."

This seems pretty benign, unless you remember those last two grapes mentioned from my post on Müller-Thurgau.  One of the parents of Müller-Thurgau was misidentified for many years as Chasselas de Courtiller because of a labeling mix up at a holding institution in Austria where a Madeleine Royale vine was mislabeled as Chassleas de Courtiller (it's a cool story and I'd really encourage you to read the post).  This raises several issues with the reputability of this particular paper.  First, it appears that the samples taken for this particular study were taken from Klausterneuberg, which is the same institution responsible for the mislabeled vines in the Müller-Thurgau story.  Further, their finding that Chasselas de Courtiller and Madeleine Royale are the same grape have been disproved (because of the labeling mishap), meaning that there is good cause to doubt the rest of their findings as well.  A dubious source for the plant material coupled with findings that have been disproved elsewhere means that it's difficult to take this paper's findings as fact without further corroboration.

This paper was written in 2001, and as far as I can tell, there are no other papers published since then that corroborate the results that this team found regarding Fetească Albă and Leányka.  The VIVC database considers the grapes to be identical even though they list the paper above in their extensive bibliography on the grape.  Further, in a very recent study (published in September 2012, citation 3 below) which discovered hundreds of pedigrees for different grape varieties, the author's notation for Fetească Albă is literally "Fetească Albă = Leányka."  While I wasn't able to find any direct evidence that shows that the two grapes are identical*, that certainly seems to be the common consensus and has been for some time.  There may be airtight evidence that I've overlooked somewhere, but right now, the case for the grapes being identical seems much stronger than the case against it.**

All of which finally brings us to the bottle of 2008 Cotnari Fetească Albă, which I picked up at the Wine Gallery in Brookline (who has a very nice eastern European section these days) for around $12.  In the glass, the wine was a medium lemon gold color.  The nose was nicely aromatic with peach, apricot and pineapple fruits along with some honey and honeysuckle flower as well.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  As it states on the label, it was also medium sweet.  There were flavors of pineapple and mandarin oranges along with some peach and a touch of honey.  Pineapple was far and away the dominant flavor note.  It came off a bit syrupy and probably could have used more acidity to balance it out, but overall, I thought it was a pretty good wine for only $12.  Fans of slightly sweet German wines will probably find a lot to like here, as will fans of spicy food, as this would likely match well with a variety of spicy Asian dishes.


1) Kiss, E., Kozma, P., Halász, G., Molnár, S., Galbács, Z.S., Hoffmann, S., Veres, A., Galli, Z.S., Szőkel, A. and Heszky, L. 2009. Pedigree of Carpathian basin and Hungarian grapevine cultivars based on microsatellite analysis. Acta Hortitculturae (ISHS) 827:221-224

2) Regner, F.; Eisenheld, C.; Kaserer, H.; Stadlbauer, A. 2001. Weitere Sortenanalysen bei Rebe mittels genetischer Marker. [Further analyses for identification of grapevine by means of genetic markers]. Mitteilungen Klosterneuburg, Rebe und Wein, Obstbau und Früchteverwertung. 51(1) pp. 3-14.

3) Lacombe, T., Boursiquot, J.M., Laucou, V., Di Vecchi-Staraz, M., Peros, J.P., & This, P.  2012.  Large scale parentage analysis in an extended set of grapevine cultivars (Vitis vinifera L.).  Theoretical and Applied Genetics.  In press.

*This paper builds on another paper published by many of the same authors which analyzed the DNA of 4,370 different cultivars.  I wasn't able to find the list of all the grapes that were studied so I don't know whether Fetească Albă and Leányka were both in the study, but the "Fetească Albă = Leányka" notation leads me to think that perhaps they were.

**Look, I've done this dance several times already, so I'll spare everyone the rant and skip right to the point: CITE YOUR RESEARCH.   Not only for the sake of your readers, but also for the sake of the people whose ideas you're passing along, whether they're right or not.  If you didn't do the study, you need to tell your readers who did.