Ξ July 5th, 2008 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine News |
Out of the possible 10,000 Vitis Vinifera varieties in existence it has been estimated that only 200 are commonly used in wine production and less than 50 are grown internationally, the rest restricted to their regional origins. However, it is the “Big 6” in the global market – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah/Shiraz, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc – which makes up the bulk of production, with many wine drinkers happily going through the year on these, with the occasional top-up from specialised favourites such as Semillon, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, etc.
Even wine enthusiasts, a category in which I count myself, don’t often venture too far off this beaten path, but there is a group who shudder at the prospect of restricting themselves to such limited choice, whose raison d’être is to actively search out and try the unusual and exotic. The Wine Century Club was formed in 2005 by Steve de Long (creator of the Wine Grape Varietal Table) and since then has expanded to over 430 members world-wide. The majority of members are based in the US, 350 at last count, with some towns having enough to organise local gatherings. Canada, at 37, is the next significant group, with the Rest of World contingent headed by the UK on 10 members and Australia on 6. Details of the club meetings and events can be found on their website.
I first read about the group just over a year ago and it seemed a perfect part of my new found commitment to push the boundaries of the wine frontier, to explore strange new varieties, seek out new grapes and old civilizations and boldly go where few wine drinkers have gone before (sorry, couldn’t resist that!). Having a competitive nature I immediately downloaded the membership application form and started going through my tasting notes and records to find how many varieties I could definitely claim. According to WCC rules the “Grape varieties that you’ve tried only in blends with other varieties are permitted” but for me this was ambiguous and open to abuse, as an evening meal with some Bordeaux, Chateauneuf-du-Papes, Port and Madeira could get you nearly half-way to the total if you included all of the typical grapes that could be in those bottles. So I made myself a little pact – only include the major varieties clearly listed on the bottle and making up a significant percentage of its content, not the 5% or 10% blends that often are found – if it wasn’t on the label, and I couldn’t clearly reference a major share in a blend, I didn’t include it. I eventually counted 49, which I was not too disappointed with given that I’d only been seriously into wine for just over a year, but that 100th variety seemed a long way off indeed. I knew that I’d be able to increase this number without changing my wine buying methods too much and I was already experimenting with new wines, the UK has a great buying choice compared to many other countries and, as regular readers of R.O.T. will know, I am frequently sent on business trips around the world so I had an excellent chance of coming across even more local grape varieties not often encountered back home.
So, for the best part of a year I looked for unusual names on the labels, and along the way I learned a lot more about grapes and wine than I probably would have;
- Assyrtiko, the dry white from the volcanic island of Santorini, whose eruption 3 thousand years ago is believed to have led to the downfall of the ancient Minoan civilization. Today grapes grow on the steep slopes of what’s left of the caldera.
- Georgian Saperavi and Rkatsiteli from a country with possibly 9 thousand years of history with winemaking but plagued by counterfeiting, spurned by its neighbour, Russia, and looking west for new markets.
- Italy, familiar to most people for Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, whose diverse selections of regional wines contributed 15 varieties to my total and created a love of Southern reds made from Aglianico, Negramaro and Nero d’Avola.
- The world’s most planted grape varietal is Airen from central Spain.
- Turkey, with a history almost as long and several hundred indigenous varieties, including Öküzgözü, Bogazkere, Narince and Emir, it’s almost impossible to drink a bottle in that country without tasting something new. Turkish wine is going through a transition at the moment, rediscovering an ancient heritage of wine production but at threat from Government taxation and discouragement in a predominantly Muslim society.
- The Eastern Mediterranean vying for the title of most unpronounceable grape, with contenders including Xynisteri, Agiorgitiko, Papazkarasi and Karasakiz.
As you may have already guessed by now I have finally reached the 100 mark. It was initially a slow progress, with only 20 new varieties on top of the 49 in the first 6 months. I may have been buying more unusual wines but I already had a cellar which had plenty bottles ready for drinking and I wasn’t deliberately changing my drinking habits just to get into the Wine Century Club – in the words of the Paul Masson ad, “Drink no wine before its time”! However time did start to take effect so there was a noticeable shift in the proportion of the weird and wonderful in the cellar, until the law of averages started to mean new varieties came to the top of the drinking list more frequently.
So what was the grape that sent me into triple figures and where did I drink it? Whilst I wouldn’t have minded had it been a glass taken alone at home in the U.K. for the sake of good memories, and more impressive writing, I am happy to say that it was a glass of 2005 Pano Papakosti, a blend of Papazkarasi, Cinsault and Karasakiz varieties from Marmara and the Aegean regions, savoured at an excellent winehouse in Istanbul (see my earlier ROT post for a full review of this evening).
Interestingly my cellar still contains quite a few new varieties I didn’t get to in the normal course of drinking, another 8 which were in reserve to reach the 100 but which I’ll get to over the next few months and years, including a Corsican red containing Niellucciu Sciallarellu, a Croatian red made from Plavac Mali and a few others made with grapes that many of you reading this will not see as uncommon and already have in their lists, Torrontes, Pinot Blanc and Tannat.
For a couple of other excellent articles on unusual grapes look here & here and for those enquiring minds who are interested in exactly which grapes made up my Century (deep breath!);
Agiorgitiko, Aglianico, Albariño, Alicante Bouchet, Arneis, Assyrtiko, Barbera, Blaufränkisch, Bonarda, Bual, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Canaiolo, Carignan, Carmenère, Chardonnay, Chasselas, Chenin Blanc, Cinsaut, Clairette, Colombard, Cortese, Corvina, Dabouky, Dornfelder, Emir, Fernao Pires, Flora, Furmint, Gamay, Garganega, Gewürztraminer, Greco, Grenache/Garnacha, Grenache Blanc, Grolleau, Grüner Veltliner, Hárslevelü, Jandaky, Kalecik Karasi, Karasakiz, Királyleányka, Macabeo, Malbec, Malvasia, Marsanne, Melon de Bourgogne, Merlot, Meunier, Molinara, Montepulciano, Mourvèdre, Müller Thurgau, Muscadelle, Muscat Blanc, Muscat of Alexandria, Narince, Nebbiolo, Negroamaro, Nero D’Avola, Öküzgözü, Orange Muscat, Palomino, Papazkaras, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Pinotage, Portugieser, Prosecco, Riesling, Rkatsiteli, Rondinella, Rondo, Roussanne, Ruby Cabernet, Sangiovese, Saperavi, Sauvignon Blanc, Schiava, Semillon, Sercial, Silvaner, Sultaniye, Syrah/Shiraz, Tempranillo, Tinta Negra Mole, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Trebbiano/Ugni Blanc, Vasilaki, Verdejo, Verdicchio, Viognier, Welschriesling, Xarel-Lo, Xynisteri , Zinfandel/Primitivo and last, but not least, Zweigelt.