Sunday 29 June 2008

The Reds

Ancelotta (aka Lancelotta). I believe a major discovery and a typical example of a great wine pressed into the service of bolstering another perhaps even lesser variety in a blend. If you remember this used to happen to Southern Italian wine such as Primitivo from Puglia which was sent to the North to help them out in bad years and which was also put into Cinzano etc. Ancelotta is grown mainly in Emilia Romagna for blending with Lambrusco. Now I actually love a good Lambrusco but the Ancelotta I tasted in the enoteca in the Campo Bandiera e Moro, Venice was a revelation. Laithwaites have a version which they call by the synonym Lancelotto but it is not quite as good. Mancini include it in a blend called ‘Il blu’ which is nice but still not up to the first sample I tasted. Being on draft (‘sfuso’), I have no idea of the provenance of this elixir but I will not rest before I find something similar. A new line of enquiry has just opened up thanks to the internet a few days ago; I see that Ancelotta is quite widely planted in Brazil and wine 100% ‘in purezza’ is made there with this grape. Watch this space or let me know if you get to ‘El Ancelotta’ first.

Cornalin. A lovely deep soft purple wine from the Geneva region. Always expensive even for a Swiss wine. The vines must be low yielding, tricky to grow or (as in the case of at least one of the above vines, short-lived). The taste is full of character. The wine deserves a much wider reputation.

Francisi. Until a few months ago I believe Palari were still trying to find out the identity of their vines on a certain parcel on Etna, Sicily. Until then the variety was considered ‘unknown’. The wine, Santa Nè was produced anyway and sold presumably in small quantities for around €50. By 2008, the riddle had been solved and the grape identified as Francisi a local word for ‘francese’ which may have something to do with the idea that the grape was descended from Pinot Noir. The taste is decidedly not reminiscent of Pinot Noir. It is nonetheless rich and at the same time aristocratic. A great future if anyone can take the trouble. So far so good. I was delighted that Francisi doesn’t make it into the Oxford Companion to Wine as this level of obscurity is fascinating to me. However, thanks to the net I have just come across a description of Santa Ne as consisting of Nerello mascalese. Nerello cappuccino (sic), Nocera, Cappuccio tignolino, Core'e palumba (a synonym for Piedirosso), Acitana, Galatena and Calabrese (Nero d’Avola). Some of these are equally obscure varieties I grant you but I prefer the ‘Francisi’ hypothesis, not least because it was given to me in person by one of the attractive and knowledgeable girls who work at the venerable Palermo Enoteca Picone where I bought my last bottle of Santa Ne.

Mencia. The grape of Bierzo, another sleeping beauty only just awakened from its slumbers. It is surprising how whole areas have slipped almost into oblivion and how long it has taken for them to have been rediscovered. Priorat was another one producing world class wines of great individuality, instantly recognizable and of great worth. How such wines are not yet on the radar of the wine consuming public at large someone will have patiently to explain to me.

Nerello Capuccio. Another treasure from Etna. This is the lesser-known sister of Nerello Mascalese and reference books will defy you to find an example that is not blended but I did and having tasted both on their own, can say I am a Capuccio man thorough and thorough as my first employer, the Greek Harpsichordist and Impresario Lina Lalandi used to say. Nerello Capuccio is by the wonderful Palari.

Piedirosso. Found in the Campi Flegrei near Napoli, Ischia, and Capri. Only about 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) remain. One taste and you might wonder how is this is possible. A tremendous food wine. Instantly characteristic and likeable. A €6 example won Decanter’s top award in 2007. Grocers on the Corso Umberto in Napoli sell a sparkling version with a plastic top for a couple of Euros. Take one back to the hotel, clear out the mini-bar and stick it in. You will enjoy it cooled as an aperitif, a nightcap or for breakfast as far as I am concerned.

Pineau D’Aunis. A rare variety from the Loir. Yes, the Loir and not the Loire. Confusingly the Loir is a tributary of the Loire. It has its own appellation ‘Coteaux du Loir’. It is near Jasnieres. They may grow Pineau D’Aunis elsewhere in the Loire viticultural area but the sample I managed to track down was from M. et Mme. Gigou of the Domaine de la Charriere. I first tasted Pineau D’Aunis at the Gramercy Tavern in New York. The name on the bottle was Les Mortiers I believe, but I have not been able to track this wine down since. As with all these wine-discoveries the impact of was that of rediscovering an old friend. The character was instantly recognisable and the thought was ‘Ah, yes – of course!’. The example from the Gigous is more resinous and perhaps more rustic but still refined enough to select as the red for our daughter’s wedding. At 12% and cooled we are hoping it will be perfect for the occasion. At least it will not be something the guests could find in their local supermarket. Pineau D’Aunis is also found in Loire Roses and there is even a red sparkling version. The grape has an interesting history; it used to be the prominent red grape of the area and was a favourite of Henry III who introduced it to England in the 13th century.

Poulsard (aka Ploussard). This is one of two native red grapes in the Jura, one of the most idiosyncratic wine regions anywhere in the world. The other is Trousseau whose merit escapes me. I was delighted to discover that Trousseau is a synonym for Bastardo; another variety that had ended up on my ‘need not detain us’ column. Poulsard on the other hand is a marvelous variety producing refreshing wines of tremendous character, modest in alcohol and good with food. For a change I think the reason for its neglect is clear; it has a salmon pink colour although it is a bona fide red wine and emphatically not a rose. This is disconcerting but if one favours variety, why not?

Ramisco. Now we come to another case altogether, this time not a detective story as with Francisi/Santa Ne (above) but a little tragedy in itself. Ramisco is the only vinifera variety in the world that remains ungrafted on to American rootstock. The reason for this is that it grows in sand which is of no interest to the phylloxera louse. It sends roots down many metres to clay which lies below the sand on the coastal region of Colares, near Sintra in Portugal. The vines have to be protected against the winds from the Atlantic by practically burying them between mounds of sand. They sit right on the surface and look rather scrubby. The grapes are noble though and in the 19th century Colares was highly prized as the Bordeaux of Portuguese table wines. The comparison is not exaggerated. The wines are similarly refined, age-worthy, high in tannins and low in alcohol (typically 11% – 12%). The area of Colares is now reduced to no more than 10 Hectares (25 acres). There is even a small amount of white wine (Malvasia) grown there, so the amount of red wine is minuscule. Among the remaining producers seem to be D’Areia and Fundação Oriente. Colares Chitas used to be prominent and other producers included Castela da Pena, Visconde Salreu, Tavares & Rodrigues and Azenhas do Mar, but they seem to be defunct now. It appears that the land is being developed for housing and it is probably difficult to find people to grow this very difficult variety. When planting, special hats have to be worn when digging the trenches in the sand because of the danger of collapsing excavations. I tried to interest vine growers in Israel to adopt Ramisco. They need a signature grape there and they have plenty of sand. They thought I was mad. You can only buy Colares from Portugal and something called the Wijn Antiquariaat in Amsterdam who has a collection of ancient vintages of Colares Chitas, some of which may be over the hill. Just the shipping cost of a case of wine from Portugal costs €200. Garrafeira Nacional have the best choice of Colares wines. For €200 one could fly to Portugal and bring back a case on the plane.

Saperavi. The word means ‘dyer’. French wines of this sort are called ‘teinturier’. These are wines used in blends for their colour. They include Petit Verdot, Alicante Bouchet, various clones of Gamay and Dunkelfelder. They come from grapes with red flesh. There are surprisingly few of these among red grapes which allows one to make white wine (blanc de noirs) such as in the case of Champagne, Merlot bianco, white Pinot Noir etc. Saperavi is the signature red grape of Georgia and is sometimes sold in earthenware bottles. It was in that form that I first encountered it in a Georgian restaurant in Moscow. Despite this dubious packaging the wine was deep, intense. and memorable. Now I hear that great Saperavi fetched enormous prices in Moscow and St. Petersburg before the cynical ban on the import of Georgian wine was levied a couple of years ago. Since then, Georgia has been trying to interest the rest of the world in their treasure but it is obviously uphill going. There are some entry-level but unworthy products available in the UK and one rather better example called Orovela available from Waitrose. As with wines from the ancient world (and Georgia can trace wine production back to the third millennium BC), alcohol levels are surprisingly low, so this mammoth wine, such a meaty chunky mouthful is only 12.5%. It just proves that high alcohol levels are not essential for good extract.

The Whites

Auxerrois. Quite commonly found in Alsace and other parts of France (where it is mostly blended with Pinot Blanc), Germany, Luxemburg and even Belgium. The bottle that impressed me however was by Hartenberg Estates of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Encruzado A really wonderful and noble grape from Dao. The Quinta Dos Roques version is quite widely available from from Handford’s, Harrods and on-line merchants. Goodness know why Chardonnay rules the world while Encruzado remains in obsurity.

Furmint. Here’s an example of a pleasurable overturning of prejudice. In the socialist era, dry Furmint (the principle grape of Tokaji) was encountered in Hungary, in a totally unremarkable form. Modern examples show what the grape is capable of. Surprisingly alcohol levels are invariably high (typically 14%). Good examples by Disznoko and Oremus are not hard to find.

Goldriesling. I even read somewhere that this was a synonym for Emerald Riesling but that is wrong. It is a hybrid, though an old one (c.1880). I always buy a bottle of Meissen Goldriesling when I’m in Leipzig. Meissen is Germany’s most northerly wine area and this seems to suit the variety well. It’s very clean and fine.

Pecorino. The example came from Handford’s. I have heard it say by those with more knowledge of the Abruzzi than me (i.e. almost everyone) that there is any number of examples of uninspiring Pecorino but as they say ay Green and Blue, a little care and attention in the vineyard can go a very long way in the glass. The wine was Gran Sasso, Tere di Cieti. Handford’s may not stock it anymore but others do. The wine is pale and citrussy; most refreshing. Could Chieti be the only Italian city without any redeeming feature? We only passed through it but couldn’t find the nice bit.

Loin de l'oeil and Mauzac. This is Gaillac Blanc Perlé, created in 1957 at the Cave de Labastide de Levis, sometimes available from Nicolas. Look for the rather lurid but sympa green label. The wine is petillant and delicious. Not to be confused with the German Perle, a hybrid crossing of Gewurtstraminer and Muller-Thurgau.

Torbato. I wish I could say I discovered this on one of my trips to the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari to see some unfeasibly good performance of an obscure Russian opera (rumoured to be funded by shady organisations) but in fact the find was made in a modest but excellent neighbourhood Sardinian restaurant on the Kentish Town/Tufnell Park borders in London. A beautifully balanced wine with what was for me a kind of instant recognition although I had never tasted it before and Torbato is not a synonym for Chardonnay as for example, the Austrian name Morillon unfortunately is.

Verduzzo. In Venice, you can buy wines from local grape varieties ‘sfuso’ (on draft from barrels or demijohns). These include such rarities as Raboso, Prosecco Spento, Ancelotta (see below) and Verduzzo. The version in these enoteche is dry, light and delicious. In bottle you will frequently find a sweet incarnation which is regarded as more interesting – not by me!

Welschriesling (Riesling Italico). For me this was an acquired taste, but acquire it I did thanks to a sparkling version from the stylish Café Englander in Vienna. This ‘Sekt’ is made exclusively for them. I bought another sparkling version by Szigeti at the airport but this was not quite as good. Fine versions of non-sparkling Welschriesling are by Pongratz etc. also to be found at Vienna/Schwechat airport where they have an exemplary wine shop cum wine bar selling a variety of Austrian wines difficult to match in town.

Xarel-lo. Bone-dry wine usually part of the Cava blend. Again, a lowly grape which is capable of making a life-enhancing wine in the right hands. I discovered this at the Cigala Spanish Restaurant in Lambs Conduit St., London WC1. I’m not sure whose version they had on their wine list but Albet I Noya is the prominent producer and the label looks familiar. Perfect when you crave a dry white wine.


Some will be more familiar (Welschriesling) than others (Francisi). I have personal reasons for my decisions (it’s a matter of taste). If anyone can overturn my negative opinion by recommending a good example of Chambave for example (much praised by Victor Hazan by the way) so much the better! I will be glad to remove the name from the NNDU list and even put it on the other one which incidentally is much longer than what appears above.

For those who would like to know how I made the positive discoveries and where to get them, the next post includes a few examples. I make few attempts to describe the wines. You should try them for yourself and let me know if you agree if they are recommendable.

Worst 10 Grapes

Of course there are some grapes that are best forgotten. Here are my top grape rejections (unless anyone can persuade me to the contrary)

Need not Detain Us

Clairette Blanc
Emerald Riesling

Bastardo (aka Trousseau)
Blauer Fruehburgunder
Chambave Rouge
Marechal Foch
Negra Mole
Petit Rouge

Top 10 Grape Discoveries

Here is my personal list of white and red discoveries.

More or less joyful discoveries

Welschriesling (Riesling Italico)

Ancelotta (aka Lancelotta)
Nerello Capuccio
Pineau D’Aunis
Poulsard (aka Ploussard)

Grape Varieties

Quite a few cuts above the more vin ordinaire from this part of the world. The yields are kept sensible and the fruit for this is tank fermented to keep things fresh. Neither of these varieties (Roupeiro and Antao Vaz) are thought to be particularly noteworthy usually but as always, a little care and attention in the vineyard can go a very long way in the glass.

This snippet from the website of one of my favourite London wine merchants, Green and Blue, goes to the heart of my Wine Beliefs; there is a wealth of little-known grape varieties which provide much more interest than so-called expressions of terroir in countless versions of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The reasons why they have not succeeded may not have anything to do with their intrinsic quality. They may be difficult to grow such as the Ramisco grown in sand in Colares, Portugal. They may have not achieved their best expression in the areas where they have originated (I was enormously more impressed by a Californian Aligote than by any I have tasted from Burgundy). Their mere names may have struck fear into the wine buying public (anyone for Harslevelu?).