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.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Sciacarello (Mammolo) - Ajaccio, Corsica, France

One of my favorite kinds of Fringe Wines are those made from grapes that are somewhat common in certain blended wines, but which are rarely found playing the star role.  As I mentioned in my post on Susumaniello, blending grapes usually get their reputation by having one or two very nice qualities, but by also being somewhat deficient in several other areas.  A grape may have a nice aroma and good color, but may be low in acid or excessively high in tannins so if you can find another grape with good acid and a soft body but which lacks perfume and is lightly colored, the two of them together can create a well-balanced wine.  Though I generally focus on varietal wines for this blog, that's mostly a decision made on the nature of the content that I write about and not a personal preference.  I enjoy varietal wines, but some of my favorite wines in the world are blends, and I try to represent that section of the wine world, when I can, in my erratic Weird Blend Wednesday feature.  Since the focus of this site has really shifted more to individual grape varieties, though, it stands to reason that the majority of my posts deal with varietal wines.

All of which kind of takes me away from what I really wanted to talk about today, which was varietal wines made from traditional blending grapes.  Sometimes blending grapes really are useful only for the handful of attributes that they can contribute to a blend, but sometimes they just need a little change of scenery in order to show their true colors.  Carmenere, for instance, was a very minor component in Bordeaux blends for many years, but when the grape was exported to Chile and growers figured out how to work with it there, it became a star grape in its new home.  Malbec has a similar story, though it was a star player in a little area called Cahors before hitting it big in Argentina.  Even Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the two king red grapes of the New World, were originally blending components of the great wines of Bordeaux, though they certainly played a more prominent role in those wines than Carmenere or Malbec ever did.

Which brings us to today's grape, which is one that a lot of people may have had at some point or another, but very few have had in a starring role.  It is known in Tuscany as Mammolo and it was once a crucial part of the Chianti blend.  It has been known in Tuscany since the early 17th Century under a variety of names, all of which relate in some form or another to the many different morphological characteristics of the many clones that are out there.  There's Mammolo Piccolo, Mammolo Grosso, Mammolo Asciuto and Mammolo Tonda, among many others.  The Mammolo part of the name is thought to come from the Italian name for violets, Viola mammola, because of the perfumed quality that the grapes can impart to a finished wine.  It was once widely planted throughout Tuscany, but its numbers have been on the decline and as of the 2000 agricultural census, there were less than 150 hectares (360 acres) under vine in all of Italy.

Off the western coast of Italy is the island of Corsica which technically belongs to France, but which is closer geographically and culturally to Italy.  We paid a brief visit to Corsica a few months back to take a look at a blended wine made mostly from a grape they call Nieullccio, but which happens to be none other than Sangiovese.  That particular wine also had a dollop of something called Sciacarello in it, which recent DNA testing (citation 1) has shown to be none other than the Mammolo of Tuscany (there is another Corsican grape called Malvasia Montanaccio which is also identical to Sciacarello and Mammolo, but that name is far less common than the others).  Like Sangiovese, it is thought that Sciacarello was brought to Corsica from the Italian mainland, and the fact that it has parent-offspring relationships with several other Tuscan grapes (none of which are widely known today) seems to back this theory up.  The name Sciacarello means "crunchy," but I'm not really sure how that adjective fits in with the grape itself.  Sciacarello is currently grown on just under 800 hectares of land (just under 2,000 acres) throughout the island of Corsica, though much of it, including both wines I'll be taking a look at today, is around the area of Ajaccio on the western part of the island.

I was able to find two Corsican wines from the same producer, but in two very different styles.  The first was the 2011 rosé from the Domaine Comte Abbatucci, which is 100% Sciacarellu (the local spelling of the grape's name), and which I picked up for around $30 from my friends at the Wine Bottega.  In the glass the wine was a very pale salmon-pink color.  The nose was fairly intense and very leesy with aromas of cheese and strawberry and little else.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  The pronounced leesy, cheesy character followed through on the palate and was joined by some tart strawberry and cherry fruits with a bit of a stony mineral finish.  The fruits were strangled at room temperature, but as the wine approached cellar temp, they began to open up a little bit and the strong aroma and flavor of cheese began to fade into the background.  It's a well structured, but somewhat austere wine that I had a hard time falling in love with.  At $30 a bottle, it's probably not something I'll be reaching for on a regular basis.

The other wine that I was able to try was the 2010 Domaine Comte Abbatucci red wine, which is 70% Sciacarellu and 30% Nieulluccio, and which I picked up for around $37 from Marty's in Newton.  In the glass the wine was a fairly light purple ruby color.  The nose was moderately intense with aromas of wild, brambly red fruit like red cherry and raspberry along with some dried leaves, underbrush and leather.  I thought I may have picked up a hint of violet, but it could have been my imagination running away with me.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  There were flavors of red cherry, raspberry, sour plum, dusty leather, cigar tobacco and damp tea leaves.  The wine reminded me more of Pinot Noir than Chianti and while I found it enjoyable enough, I thought that the nearly $40 price tag was a bit too steep for what you get here.  If this wine's price were slashed in half, then I think you might be a bit closer, but it's always very difficult to assign an exact price to a wine's experience.  If money is no object, then this is a very lovely bottle from a grape that is becoming increasingly harder to find in a starring role.


Di Vecchi Staraz, M, et al.  2007.  Genetic structuring and parentage analysis for evolutionary studies in grapevine: kingroup and origin of cv. Sangiovese revealed.  Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science, 132(4), pp. 514-24.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Ortrugo - Colli Piacentini, Emilia-Romagna, Italy

"It's hot, drink Ortrugo."  These were the words, tweeted by my friend Matt at the Wine Bottega (way back in the summer, naturally), that introduced me to the Ortrugo grape.  I had never heard of it before, but after some quick Googling, I could tell that this was something I'd be interested in.  I asked Matt whether they had any Ortrugo in stock and he said that they did, but the wine was only about 35% Ortrugo.  I like to try and write about varietal wines whenever possible and if that isn't possible, I try to aim for at least 75% of a blend, but sometimes I have to take what I can get.  I bought the wine and held out hope that I'd be able to find a varietal Ortrugo at some point in the future, but to date my efforts have been in vain.  I decided it's time to go ahead and write the post so today I'd like to tell you a little bit about Ortrugo and the wine that I was able to try.

Like an unbelievable number of grapes (see Abouriou, Malagousia, Timorasso, Pugnitello, Roscetto, Pecorino and Casetta, among many others), Ortrugo was on the brink of extinction until it was rediscovered and rescued in the 1970's.  It was first mentioned in print (under synonyms Artrugo and Altrugo) in 1881 and the first mention of it as Ortrugo appeared in 1927.  It is thought that the name comes from altra uva, which means "the other grape" in the local dialect, though it's not entirely clear what the other grape that it is being contrasted with might be.  It could have been Trebbiano Romagnolo, the Trebbiano variety native to Emilia-Romagna that covers a lot of ground throughout that region, or it could be Malvasia di Candia Aromatica which was the grape that was perhaps most responsible for Ortrugo's decline.  Throughout the early and middle parts of the 20th Century, many growers replaced their Ortrugo vines with Malvasia di Candia Aromatica, though I'm not really sure why since Ortrugo is a high yielding vine that is fairly easy to grow, though it is somewhat susceptible to the European grapevine moth.

The grape had all but disappeared when Luigi Mossi discovered a small patch of Ortrugo growing in a decrepit corner of one of his vineyards near the city of Piacenza in the Val Tidone.  Rather than just pull up the vines, Luigi decided to harvest them and make a small bit of wine from them.  He tasted the resulting wine with some of his friends and decided to plant an entire vineyard over to the grape.  People thought he was crazy to plant so much land to a grape that no one had really heard of, but pretty soon his wines made from Ortrugo were outselling his Malvasia based wines.  Other growers took notice and began to plant Ortrugo vines of their own.  Today there are about 500 hectares (1,300 acres) of Ortrugo planted in Italy and nearly all of them are in and around the Colli Piacentini DOC in the western part of Emilia-Romagna, which used to be a part of Piedmont and is just southeast of Oltrepò Pavese in Lombardy.  Varietal wines from Ortrugo are allowed here and some producers do make them, but it is also frequently blended with Malvasia and Trebbiano Romagnolo.  Ortrugo lends itself well to sparkling wine production and wines made from it can be found in fully sparkling, frizzante and still forms.

The wine that I was able to find was the 2010 La Tosa "Rio del Tordo," which is a still wine made from 35% Ortrugo, 35% Malvasia, 20% Trebbiano & 10% Sauvignon Blanc.  In the glass the wine was a medium lemon gold color.  The nose was moderately intense with aromas of grapefruit, peach and a touch of grassy herbaceousness.  On the palate the wine was light bodied with fairly high acidity.  There were flavors of lemon, grapefruit, green apple, apricot, and citrus peel.  It was tart, bright and refreshing and I was surprised at how much the wine reminded me of varietal Sauvignon Blanc given that that grape only made up 10% of the final blend.  It had a lot of Sauvignon Blanc character with a bit of peachy stone fruit and white flowers thrown in for good measure.  It's a very nice wine that is definitely great on a hot summer day, which is fortunately the situation that I was able to try it it in rather than the blizzard conditions we've been experiencing here in the northeast lately.  I hope to find a varietal Ortrugo some day, but in the meantime, this is the best that I've been able to do.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Cococciola - Terre de Chieti, Abruzzo, Italy

Cococciola is the kind of grape that makes me hate writing.  That sounds a little harsh, I know, but I remember being so excited when I came across it in a local Italian wine shop since it was something completely new and different to me, which is no small feat these days.  I naturally bought the wine and opened it almost right away.  I enjoyed it quite a bit and immediately starting trying to find more information on it for a post here.   After I drank it, I started to see a few email offers for wines made from the Cococciola grape and saw a few pieces online about it, but when I tried to really dig in and find enough good information to fill out an entire blog post, I just wasn't getting anywhere.  There is virtually no mention of Cococciola in any of the academic databases I usually use and the few references in books and online that I have been able to track down rarely have more than a sentence or two of vague, generic boilerplate information that hardly seems like it is worth reporting.  I keep looking for a story with Cococciola and I think that the best story that I've been able to find is that there really isn't much of a story to Cococciola at all.  So I finally decided to just give up on researching this grape and will just present the little bit of information that I was able to find and get to the tasting note as quickly as possible.

I started, as I usually do, with the Oxford Companion to Wine, whose entry on the grape reads in full "white wine variety native to the Abruzzo where it is blended with Trebbiano."  Lettie Teague at the Wall Street Journal wrote about Cococciola back in 2010, but her entire blog post only runs to two paragraphs, only one sentence of which actually contains any informational content ("Cococciola is a grape grown in the Abruzzi region of Italy (in the province of Terre di Chieti) where it produces a pleasingly crisp, slightly grassy white that’s a wonderful aperitif and a perfect summer drink").  There's a handful of brief blog posts more or less in that vein scattered across the internet that you can Google at your leisure, but pretty much none of them go any deeper than the two quotes above.

The most in-depth treatment of Cococciola comes from Wine Grapes, but even their coverage is pretty sparse.  The "Origins and Parentage" section is a single sentence, which reads in full "The origins of this variety and of its strange name are unclear and its earliest mention seems to be in Viala and Vermorel's Ampélographie (1901-1910) under the synonym Cacciola."  Though I've been able to track down a few volumes of the Ampélographie online, I haven't found the volume (there are 7 in total) that mentions Cacciola and since I don't have thousands of dollars to spend on a copy for myself, I can't report what that book has to say about the grape.  Wine Grapes goes on to say that Cococciola is mostly planted in Abruzzo and northern Puglia where it was traditionally used as a very minor blending component with Trebbiano d'Abruzzo (thanks largely to its high yields), though it is being used more these days to make varietal wines.  As of 2000, there were shockingly 893 hectares (2,207 acres) under vine in Italy, which is much higher than I would have expected.

The wine that I was able to find was the 2010 Cantina Frentana Cococciola from the Terre di Chieti area of Abruzzo, which i picked up for around $19 from Panzano Proviste. In the glass the wine was a pale silvery lemon color. The nose was moderately intense with subtle aromas of lemon, apricot, green apple and white flowers. On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity. There were tart, racy flavors of lemon and green apple with a touch of apricot and pear and a lovely stony mineral finish. I found the wine bright and sharp with really lively acidity, but there were also nice round stone fruit flavors that kept this from being too austere. I thoroughly enjoyed drinking it and am glad that I gave it a shot, even if it has been unpleasant to try and post about. I guess it just goes to show that a grape doesn't have to be interesting in order for the wine to be good. This is definitely a grape to try if you happen to run across it in your local shop.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Huxelrebe - Rheinhessen, Germany

I love German wines.  To be truthful, I love wines from pretty much anywhere, but I have a particular soft spot in my heart for the wines of Germany.  Riesling is my absolute favorite grape and I don't believe that any other country or region can match the range and depth of Rieslings from Germany.  Unfortunately, it seems that in the United States, the Riesling grape has become so entwined with the image of German wines that it is nearly impossible to find wines from Germany made from any other grape.  As I mentioned in my post on Kerner (which was bred in Germany but the only bottles I could find were from Italy), Riesling accounts for only around 20% of the total planting area of Germany, but it seems to occupy 95% of the shelf space devoted to German wines in American wine shops.  German Pinot Noir (red and white) is becoming more common and you can occasionally find something like Scheurebe, Dornfelder, Kanzler or Silvaner if you look long enough, but if you come across a bottle of wine from Germany in your local shop, odds are really good that it's a Riesling.

Which is kind of a shame, because there are a lot of interesting, unique grapes being grown in Germany.  As I mentioned in my post on Scheurebe, many of the unique grapes being grown in Germany are actually crossings that were bred at one of the many viticultural institutions located throughout that country.  In places like Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, the climate is particularly suited to the cultivation of the vine and so many different varieties have been grown in those countries through the years.  Many of Germany's wine growing regions are not quite as favorable as those in areas further south so few grape species have really thrived there.  Over the past hundred years or so, many German viticulturalists have focused their energies on developing new grape varieties that can withstand the harsher conditions of some of these regions.  The German people are also an efficient lot, so another aim of their grape breeding programs was to create high yielding vines that also produced high quality wine.  While they have been fairly successful in overcoming many of their climatic issues through grape breeding, their search for an explosively yielding vine that produces high quality wine has thus far not been, ahem, fruitful.

One of the more well known German grape breeders was a man named Georg Scheu.  Scheu (1879 - 1949) studied horticulture in the early 1900's and in 1909, he went to the institute at Alzey, where he remained until 1947, to study viticulture.  In 1929, he discovered how leaf-roll disease was transmitted between vines (though the virus that is the underlying cause was not discovered until 1966) and initiated efforts to create clean, virus free vine stocks in nurseries and holding institutions.  Though Scheu was an accomplished scientist and viticulturalist, most wine drinkers know him today, if they know him at all, from the grapes that he bred during his time in Alzey.  The Scheurebe grape is his namesake variety and is the most well known of his creations, but he also created the Kanzler grape mentioned above as well as Siegerrebe, Faber and Regner.  The grape we're interested in today, though, is one of his creations called Huxelrebe.

Huxelrebe was created in 1927 by crossing Chasselas with a grape called Muscat Précoce de Saumur.  Here's how we got Muscat Précoce de Saumur: a Pinot Noir vine mutated into Pinot Noir Précoce (Frühburgunder to you Germans in the crowd) which gets its name from the fact that it ripens two weeks earlier than regular Pinot Noir, and that mutation was propagated, and then one of those mutated vines was self-pollinated and one of the resulting seeds (which is genetically very similar to but still distinct from Pinot Noir Précoce) was planted and grew into Muscat Précoce de Saumur.  I have no idea if there is even a word for the kind of relationship that Huxelrebe therefore has to Pinot Noir, but it's kind of fun to think about.  Huxelrebe was originally known as Alzey S 3962, but was later named for Fritz Huxel, a Germany nurseryman who first brought the grape to prominence in the 1950's.  Huxelrebe is a prolific yielder that is also capable of very high sugar levels which, along with its susceptibility to botrytis infection, makes it a natural choice for sweet wine production.  It is grown on about 635 hectares in Germany (just over 1500 acres) and about 25 hectares (60 acres) in the UK, but those numbers have been declining in recent years.  Though it is a high-yielding variety, its aroma and flavor profile are quite assertive and this seems to have tempered most people's enthusiasm for it as a fine wine grape.

Recently I was able to find a half bottle of the 2008 Gysler Huxelrebe Beerenauslese from my friends at the Wine Bottega for around $35.  In the glass the wine was a fairly light lemon gold color.  The nose was intense with smoky, funky aromas of orange marmalade, orange peel, honey and dried apricot. On the palate the wine was full bodied with fairly high acidity.  It was very sweet with flavors of honey, orange creme, orange marmalade, and dried apricot.  The wine was very well balanced and was a real delight to drink, though the nose smelled really odd and funky.  It wasn't as complex as BA Riesling, but what it lacked in complexity, it certainly made up for in power with deep, intense pure citrus and stone fruit flavors.  I had some duck foie gras pate in my refrigerator and this wine complemented it very nicely.  It's not exactly a value wine, but I felt that the quality lined up pretty nicely with the price on it.  I'd be interested in trying a table wine made from this grape, but suspect I'll be hard pressed to find one anytime soon.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Weird Blend Wednesday - Araignan Blanc, Riveirenc Gris, Riveirenc Blanc & Grenache Gris, Cotes du Brian, France

Araignan Blanc grapes
(aka Picardan)
It has been several months since I last did a Weird Blend Wednesday post, which is entirely too long, so today I'd like to dust the old feature off and talk a bit about a really interesting white wine I tried a few months ago from the Cotes du Brian region of the Languedoc in southern France.  Back in August of last year, I wrote about a red wine from Clos Centeilles which was made from Picpoul Noir, Riveirenc Noir, Morastel Noir à Jus Blanc and Œillade grapes, all of which are pretty rare and very unusual.  Clos Centeilles also makes a white wine made from a handful of local heirloom varieties, and today I'd like to take a look at some of those grapes and the wine that is made from them.
The Clos Centeilles "C" blanc is made from 35% Araignan Blanc, 30% Riveirenc Blanc, 30% Riveirenc Gris and 5% Grenache Gris*.  Since we've already covered Grenache Gris, I'll mainly be focusing on the other three grapes that make up 95% of this particular wine.

Riveirenc Blanc
Araignan Blanc (pictured above) is perhaps the most well known of the bunch, but most people know it as Picardan, and it is one of the 18 approved varieties in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC of the southern Rhone Valley.  It is a very old grape variety and the first mention of it in print can be traced back to 1544 AD.  It shares some synonyms with Bourboulenc and Clairette, though it doesn't appear that it is related to either of those grapes.  The name Picardan is thought to come from a combination of the French words piquer (to sting, as in Picpoul de Pinet) and ardent (burning) because of its high acid content.  The grape's primary synonym of Araignan was first mentioned in print in 1715, and is thought to come from the word araignée, or spider, because of the small hairs on the underside of the leaves which resemble spider's silk.  There are currently only about 1.2 acres (less than a hectare) of Picardan in all of France and though a little bit finds its way into some Chateauneuf-du-Pape blends (like Chateau Beaucastel), chances are pretty good that this particular bottling has the highest percentage of Picardan of any wine in the world.

Riveirenc Gris
Riveirenc Blanc and Gris are color mutations of Riveirenc Noir, which we took a brief look at in my post on the red wine from Clos Centeilles.  This group of grapes is more commonly known as Rivairenc or Aspiran, though very little acreage is devoted to any of the three varieties in France or elsewhere.  The Noir is the most common of the three and it is thought that the grape may be referenced as early as the 15th Century under the name Esperan, but it is difficult to say for certain.  The French registry of grape varieties spells the name of the grape Rivairenc and this is how it is listed in Wine Grapes, but the producer uses the Riveirenc spelling so that's what I've used as well.  The name Rivairenc is thought to come from from the word ribairenc, which in the Occitan dialect means "riparian," or having to do with river banks, possibly because the vines were discovered on a river bank or because they grow particularly well there.  Vouillamoz reports in Wine Grapes that his personal research indicates that there may be a parent/offspring relationship between Rivairenc and Cinsaut, but more markers need to be tested and since the third member of the family has not yet been identified, it is impossible to say what the precise nature of the relationship between the two grapes is.  I cannot find any planting statistics for Rivairenc Blanc or Gris, so there is also a really good chance that the 30% of each in this particular wine is the highest proportion you're likely to find anywhere.

I picked up the 2009* Close Centeilles "C" Blanc from my friends at Curtis Liquors for around $20.  This wine is a vin de pays from the Cotes du Brian, which I believe is in the area around Minervois in the Languedoc.  In the glass the wine was a fairly deep lemon gold color.  The nose was fairly intense with aromas of green apple, apple cider, Meyer lemon, pastry dough, pineapple and melon.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with medium acidity.  There were broad, creamy flavors of pear, red apple, Meyer lemon creme and a touch of apple cider.  This wine is fermented on its lees before being drawn off the heavier lees into a neutral container.  It is stirred weekly for several months before being bottled for release and this stirring and lees contact definitely gives it a rich, creamy mouth-feel, though it does sharpen up a bit as it approaches room temperature.  Rosemary George reviewed this wine on her website in 2010 and remarked that it is "not a wine to age," and I agree with her assessment, having tasted the wine about a year and a half after she did.  It was an enjoyable wine, but I thought it was probably more interesting than good and much preferred the red from this estate.  It is a rare opportunity to try grapes that you may otherwise never taste, though, and is good enough that I wouldn't consider it a mere curiosity.

*These figures are for the 2007 vintage.  The winery website does not offer any more up-to-date information than this.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Moore's Diamond - Cape Cod, Massachusetts and Finger Lakes, New York, USA

When I was first learning about wine, I had a lot of trouble trying to understand what the term "foxy" meant when it was applied to native American grape varieties.  At that time, I had only ever had wine that was made from Vitis vinifera grapes so the use of the word "foxy" to describe wines made from non-vinifera varieties was mystifying to me.  The Oxford Companion to Wine's entry on "foxy" says that foxiness is "the peculiar flavour of many wines, particularly red wines, made from American vines and American hybrids," which isn't really all that helpful.  The entry goes on to state that the Concord grape is the most well known foxy-tasting grape, "reeking of something closer to animal fur than fruit, flowers, or any other aroma associated with fine wine."  This seems to suggest that the term comes from the fact that the grapes and wines taste kind of like fox fur, but that may not necessarily be the case.  Writing in 1908, UP Hedrick, in his Grapes of New York (which you can peruse electronically here), has the following to say about the origin of the term foxy:

"Bailey gives the following interpretation of the word "fox" and its derivatives as applied to grapes: 'The term fox-grape was evidently applied to various kinds of native grapes in the early days, although it is now restricted to the vitis labrusca of the Atlantic slope. Several explanations have been given of the origin of the name fox-grape, some supposing that it came from a belief that foxes eat the grapes, others that the odor of the grape suggests that of the fox - an opinion to which Beverly subscribed nearly two centuries ago - and still others thinking that it was suggested by some resemblance of the leaves to a fox's track. William Bartram, writing at the beginning of this century, in the Medical Repository, is pronounced in his convictions: 'The strong, rancid smell of its ripe fruit, very like the effluvia arising from the body of the fox, gave rise to the specific name of this vine, and not, as many have imagined, from its being the favourite food of the animal: for the fox (at least the American species) seldom eats grapes or other fruit if he can get animal food.' I am inclined to suggest, however, that the name may have originated from the lively foxing or intoxicating qualities of the poor wine which was made from the wild grapes. At the present day we speak of 'foxiness' when we wish to recall the musk-like flavor of the wild Vitis labrusca; but this use of the term is of later origin, and was suggested by the name of the grape."' Bailey, L. H . Evolution of our Native Fruits: 5 1898."  Peter May (whose book on Pinotage I reviewed here) passed along this link which has a thorough and interesting discussion on "foxiness" as well.

All of which is interesting, but unless you know what the "effluvia arising from the body of a fox" smells like, probably isn't really all that helpful.  Judging by the number of threads devoted to the topic of foxiness on many wine message boards, I wasn't alone in my confusion.  Many try to describe it as a musky flavor, which is a little more helpful but is still maddeningly vague enough to not be satisfactory.  Still others describe it as a kind of grapey flavor, like Welch's grape juice or grape jelly, which I've found a little bit more helpful, but not totally accurate. The scientific explanation is that there are two chemicals, methyl anthranilate and O-aminoacetophenone, that are responsible for the taste and flavor perceptions that we regard as foxy. Methyl anthranilate (C8H9NO2) is found in Concord grapes and many other fruits, but is also secreted by dog and fox musk glands and is responsible for the "sickly sweet" smell of rotting corpses.  At full concentrations, its aroma is described as "grapey" and it is often used to flavor grape candies and drinks.  O-aminoacetophenome is apparently another chemical with a particularly grapey aroma that is found in many native American grape varieties, but can also be found in the anal sac of the Japanese weasel (really).

Knowing all of the information above can get you part of the way to understanding what "foxiness" is, but the only real way to get a handle on what that term means is to try a foxy wine.  Several years ago, still not knowing just what "foxy" meant, I found myself at Truro Vineyards in Truro, Massachusetts.  My wife and I were going through a tasting of some of their wines, most of which are made from traditional Vitis vinifera varieties, when they poured me a wine from a blue bottle shaped like a lighthouse which they said was made from a grape called Moore's Diamond.  When I stuck my nose in the glass, I knew immediately what "foxiness" was.  I grew up in rural Georgia and my grandparents had a grape arbor in their back yard that was planted with Scuppernong grapes.  Scuppernongs belong to the Vitis rotundifolia species which is also known as "muscadine" because they're very musky and have a very distinctive kind of taste which, it turns out, is what people mean when they talk about foxiness.  It was a moment of great revelation as so many things suddenly became clear to me.  I wasn't doing this blog at the time, but I recently came across another bottling of Truro's Diamond and decided to write a little bit about the grape.

Moore's Diamond was bred by Jacob Moore around 1870 by fertilizing a Concord vine with pollen from an Iona vine.  Iona is itself a hybrid of Diana (or possibly Catawba) and an unknown Vitis vinifera vine, which makes Diamond a Vitis vinifera x labrusca hybrid.  It was once very highly regarded and in 1908, UP Hedrick writes: "Diamond is surpassed in quality and beauty by few other grapes. When to its desirable fruit characters are added its earliness, hardiness, productiveness and vigor it is surpassed by no other green grape."  He goes on to say: "We usually accord Niagara first place among green grapes but Diamond rivals it for the honor. The former attained high rank not only through merit but by much advertisement while Diamond has made its way by merit alone.  If we consider the wants of the amateur and of the wine-maker as well as those of the commercial vineyardist, unquestionably Diamond must be accorded a high place
among the best all-around grapes."  Hedrick was a fan of Diamond because he likes "the refreshing sprightliness of our native fox grapes," and feels that the introduction of some vinifera into the lineage gave Diamond a "touch of the exotic."  The vine is also relatively cold hardy and carries many of the same resistances to disease as the other native American vines, but it is thin skinned and thus susceptible to many fungal diseases.  Its popularity was never as high as Hedrick might have hoped, and today it is planted on less than 100 acres in New York state and in minuscule quantities across the northeastern and Midwestern United States.

Truro Vineyards way out towards the tip of Cape Cod makes a wine that they call Diamond White from the Moore's Diamond grape.  This wine is non-vintage and comes in a blue tinted bottle shaped like a lighthouse.  It cost me around $18 at a local wine event I recently attended.  In the glass, the wine was a fairly light lemon gold color.  The nose was very intense and smelled like the Platonic ideal of foxiness (meaning it was very musky and grapey).  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity and was medium sweet.  There were flavors of fresh picked grapes with a little bit of white pear, sweet peach and green apple flavors.  As with most wines that I try from native American grapes or hybrid grapes with predominately native American parentage, this wine tasted mostly like grape juice and very little else.  It's not that most of these wines are bad, but rather that they're not very complex and many wine drinkers avoid them because they're simple and you almost always know what you're going to get.  If you like sweet wines that taste like grape juice, then you're going to love this wine, but the price tag on it is pretty steep for what you're getting.

If you drink a lot of wines made from labrusca varieties or from foxy grapes, chances are that nearly all of them are sweet.  I don't drink wines from these grapes habitually, but I can say that every wine that I've ever had from a foxy grape was sweet except for one.  Arbor Hill in the Finger Lakes region of New York not only makes a dry wine from Moore's Diamond grapes, they age the wine in oak barrels for awhile before bottling too.  They release the wine as a NV and it costs about $10.50 directly from the winery.  In the glass this wine was a very pale silvery lemon color.  The nose was explosively perfumed and was 100% musky grapes.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity and was bone dry.  There wasn't a lot of fruit to the wine, but what was there was a little musky and grapey with a little bit of vague citrus as well.  It was a really weird wine with a kind of salty, tangy nuttiness to it as well.  The dominant flavor was still foxy grapes, but I think that because I have such a strong association of sweetness with that foxy grape flavor, this wine just ended up coming off as weird to me.  Of all the wines I've tasted for this site, this was definitely one of the most bizarre and while I'm glad that I got to try it, I don't think it's something that I'll be seeking out again anytime soon.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Tinta Negra (Negramoll) - Canary Islands, Spain

Over the past few months I've been slowly making my way through the noble grapes of Madeira and have thus far covered Sercial, Bual (Malvasia Fina) and Verdelho.  I also have plans to cover Malmsey (aka Malvasia Branca de São Jorge) and the rare Terrantez in the near future, but today I'd like to take a look at the workhorse grape of the island of Madeira, Tinta Negra.  This grape used to be known as Tinta Negra Mole in Portugal, but the name was recently changed to avoid confusion with another grape grown in Algarve on the Portuguese mainland which is also (and now officially) called Tinta Negra Mole.  Tinta Negra is also known as Negramoll in the Canary Islands of Spain (which is where both wines we'll be looking at today are from) and as Mollar in parts of the Spanish mainland (especially in southern Spain).  Though I won't be writing about any wines from Madeira in today's post, I'd still like to start off by talking a little bit about the grape's importance on that island before moving to the Spanish examples I was recently able to try.

Tinta Negra is planted on about 680 acres on Madeira but is responsible for making about 80% of the wines there.  If you've ever bought a wine for around $10 - $20 that was just labeled "Madeira," chances are that it was made from Tinta Negra grapes.  The fortified wines made from Tinta Negra are generally thought to be much inferior to those made from the noble varieties mentioned above, so one may wonder why so much more wine is made from it than from those other grapes.  The reason can be traced back to the twin catastrophes that visited the vineyards of Madeira in the mid 19th century.  In 1851, powdery mildew arrived on Madeira and since many of the noble grape varieties of the island are particularly susceptible to fungal infections like powdery mildew, the vineyards all over the island were completely decimated.  It was soon discovered that applying sulfur to the vines could combat this fungus and many growers began to replant, but in the 1870's phylloxera arrived and wiped out the vineyards all over again.  Rather than replant those vines which had proven so susceptible to these diseases, many growers elected to plant hybrid and native American vines (called direct producers because they did not need to be grafted onto resistant rootstock) or vines like Tinta Negra which has very good fungal resistance and which yields generously and reliably.  When the EU banned the use of hybrid and native American vines for quality wine produced in the EU, Tinta Negra's plantings rose even more.  Though there are some producers who are making high quality fortified wines from the grape, most of the wines made from Tinta Negra on Madeira are generic and uninteresting.

The grape is actually much more widely planted throughout the Canary Islands of Spain, where there are just over 3,000 acres under vine.  It is known as Negramoll in the Canary Islands and is used primarily to make red table wines rather than fortified wines.  It had long been thought that Negramoll was either native to the Canary Islands or to the island of Madeira, but a study published in 2006 (citation 1) found that the variety known as Negramoll was identical to a vine grown in Andalusia on the Spanish mainland called Mollar Cano.  The name Mollar comes from the Latin word mollis, which means soft (apparently because the berries are soft to the touch), and so Negramoll basically means something like "soft black."  References for Mollar can be traced back a few hundred years and many of those references are to vines grown throughout South America (where there are still vines called Mollar, some of which have been recently shown to be genetically identical to Negramoll [citation 2]), which means that this particular vine, like the Mission grape, was widely disseminated throughout the new Spanish world by missionaries who were planting vines to make sacramental wine. As we saw in my post on Listán Negro, the Canary Islands were often the last stop for ships on their way to the new Spanish colonies in the Americas and many of the vines that were destined for those new lands ended up in the Canaries as well.  It is now thought that Negramoll is likely from Andalusia and was brought to the Canary Islands and to Madeira on ships that were ultimately bound for the New World.

Since Tinta Negra is rarely mentioned by name on bottles from Madeira and since generic bottles of Madeira are available at every corner liquor store on Earth, I decided it probably wasn't necessary to write a review of one of them.  Instead, I recently was able to try two different table wines from the Canary Islands. The first was the 2009 Tinto Negramoll from Bodegas Carballo, which I picked up for around $22 from my friends at Curtis Liquors.  In the glass the wine was a fairly light brickish garnet color with some orange-brown tints to it.  The nose was fairly intense with aromas of red cherry, wild strawberry, stewed tomato, licorice, damp leafy earth and spice.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity and low tannins.  There were flavors of wild strawberry, tart cherry, damp leaves, canned tomatoes and green bell pepper.  The nose was quite lovely but I found the palate bitter, metallic and a little harsh.  I was a little disappointed in this wine because I enjoyed the Listán Blanco from this winery quite a bit, but I really had a hard time drinking this particular bottle.

I also picked up a bottle of the 2009 Bodegas Juan Matias Torres Perez "Vid Sur" Negramoll from my friends at the Wine Bottega for around $20.  This wine was from the island of La Palma, which is the most northwesterly of the Canary Islands and is the fifth largest in that chain.  In the glass the wine was a fairly light brickish ruby color with a bit of brown to it.  The nose was moderately intense with aromas of dusky wild strawberry, red cherry, canned stewed tomatoes, damp leaves and earth.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity and low tannins.  There were flavors of wild strawberry, tart cherry, cranberry, wet leaves, stewed tomato and cola.  I picked up the same harsh metallic notes in this wine as in the other and while it wasn't quite as unpleasant to drink, it wasn't exactly a pleasure either.  If they packaged cheap Pinot Noir in tin cans, I bet the result would taste a lot like these two wines.  I really didn't expect to end up preferring those simple Madeira wines made from this grape to these two table wine examples, but that's pretty much what happened.  There may be producers out there doing amazing things with this grape, but I just don't think that it's for me.


1)  Martin, JP, Santiago, JL, Pinto-Carnide, O, Leal, F, Martinez MC, & Ortiz, JM.  2006.  Determination of Relationships among Autochthonous Grapevine Varieties (Vitis vinifera L.) in the Northwest of the Iberian Peninsula by using microsatellite markers.  Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution, 53(6), pp 1255-61.

2) Martinez, LE, Cavagnaro, P, Masuelli, RW & Zuniga, M.  2006.  SSR-based Assessment of Genetic Diversity in South American Vitis Vinifera varieties.  Plant Science, 170(6), pp 1036-44.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Odds and Ends - Sparkling Turbiana, Picpoul de Pinet, Frappato, Verdejo & Listán Blanco

Hello everyone and welcome once again to my erratic Odds and Ends feature, where I take a look at a few wines I've tried recently that I feel either don't warrant a full post or which feature grapes that I've already written a full post about.  I've got a handful of interesting wines here that I hope you'll enjoy reading about, so without further ado, let's get to them!

I've written several times (as in my posts on Groppello, Vespaiola, Grechetto and Sagrantino) about the wines of Paul Turina, an Italian importer from Maine who is a friend of mine.  Paul has some distant relatives who make wine in the area around Lake Garda in Italy and I've written about some of their offerings in the post on Groppello linked above.  His family also works with the Turbiana grape, which, as we discovered in my post on that grape last year, is actually Verdicchio.  I've tried a sparkling Verdicchio from the Marche, but I've never tried a sparkling Turbiana from Lugana so when Paul gave me the opportunity to taste his family's wine, I graciously took him up on it.  In the glass the wine was a fairly pale lemon gold color with steady bubbles.  The nose was somewhat reserved with aromas of apple and pineapple and little else.  On the palate the wine was on the lighter side of medium with fairly high acidity and a loose bubble structure.  There were flavors of ripe apple, pear, baked white fruits, candied apple and pineapple.  This is a tank fermented wine that has more complexity and depth than your average prosecco.  It's really a lovely little bottle and those interested in trying it are advised to contact Paul via his website.

Next up is a wine made from one of the very first grapes that I wrote about, Picpoul Blanc.  Even though that post was only the tenth one that I had written, I really don't have any new information to add to it.  Picpoul is a pretty straightforward grape without any real controversies or interesting family connections.  I'm still a big fan of it, though, and this bottle, the 2010 vintage from the Saint-Peyre winery in the Coteaux du Languedoc region of France, was given to me as a gift by my wife (retail is around $11).  In the glass the wine was a fairly light silvery lemon color.  The nose was fairly intense with aromas of grapefruit, grapefruit peel, pear and some grassy herbs.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  There were flavors of pear, grapefruit peel, golden apple, lemon and cut grass.  Picpoul always reminds me a bit of Sauvignon Blanc, and this wine was certainly no exception.  It's bright and zippy with a wonderful wild, grassy vein running through it as well.

I've mentioned one of my favorite shops, The Wine Bottega in the North End of Boston, over and over again because they always have an interesting selection and are always incredibly nice and knowledgeable about their merchandise.  Matt is one of the co-owners of the shop and he has recently started his own importing label on the side called Selectio Naturel.  Like the Bottega, Selectio Naturel is focused on representing small producers making natural wines.  One of those producers is Lamoresca whose vineyards are located deep in the hills of central Sicily at an altitude around 430 meters above sea level.  Their approach in the vineyard and in the winery is minimalistic, and you can read more about it here.  Matt imports their Rosso, which is a blend of Nero d'Avola and Frappato, their Bianco, a blend of Vermentino Corse and Roussanne which I'll have a full review of shortly, and the Nerocapitano, which is 100% Frappato.  Frappato is absolutely one of my favorite grapes and in my prior post on it, I got a little carried away with an example from Occhipinti, so I had high hopes for this bottle, the 2011 vintage, which I picked up at the Bottega for around $30.  In the glass this wine was a fairly light pinkish ruby color.  The nose was intense with aromas of red cherry, wild strawberry, raspberry and rose petals.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  There were flavors of bright red cherry, raspberry, rose water and wild strawberry.  While it wasn't as intoxicating as the wine from Occhipinti, it was still gorgeous with a beautiful perfume and pure fruit flavors on the palate (and it costs about $20 less per bottle).

Another one of my very early posts was on the Verdejo grape from Spain.  In that post, I wrote that Verdejo was best known in Rueda, Spain, but the bottle that I was able to try was from La Mancha, which is a little further south, a little further inland, and a bit hotter and drier than Rueda.  I enjoyed the bottle that I had picked up, but I was curious to try a more representative sample from an area where the grape was more traditional and more highly regarded.  I found the 2009 Shaya Verdejo ($17) a few months after I wrote my initial post and have had the tasting note kicking around in a notebook for quite some time now.  In the glass the wine was a pale silvery lemon color.  The nose was moderately intense with aromas of pear, white peach and fresh cut lemon.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  There were flavors of pear, lemon peel, and lees with a stony, chalky minerality on the finish.  It was an OK wine, but I didn't like it as much as the example from La Mancha, which was actually a little bit cheaper than this bottle.

A few months ago, I was shopping at another one of my favorite local stores, the Spirited Gourmet in Belmont, and came across a bottle of wine made from the Listán Blanco grape (the 2008 Bodegas Carballo, which cost around $24). I had recently picked up a few bottles made from Listán Negro and was excited to find something that I didn't think I had tried before. I bought the bottle without asking anyone about it or bothering to look it up on my phone and so was somewhat disappointed when I looked it up at home and discovered that Listán Blanco is actually just another name for Palomino, which I've already written about.  This wine was from the Canary Islands, though, and was made with some skin contact, so I was curious to see what it was like.  In the glass the wine was a fairly deep lemon gold color just starting to go bronze.  The nose was intense with aromas of red apples, apple cider, fresh cracked pecans, seawater and autumn spice.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  There were flavors of baked apple, apple cider, fresh cracked pecans, toasted walnuts, autumn spice and dried leaves.  When I used to jump into raked leaf piles as a kid, I remember there being a particular smell and taste that would result from the leaves being crushed by our bodies.  A fine powder would form and coat the inside of our noses, our mouths and our clothes and that powder had a very distinct kind of taste and smell that I had essentially forgotten about until I drank this wine.  Everything about this bottle screams autumn and I almost felt like the wine had a kind of mulled character to it.  This was miles better than the Palomino I tried previously and it gives a hint as to what Palomino may be capable of in careful hands.