Unique Old World Grapes

Recantina to Assyrtiko

Grapes are the ultimate essential compound to wine. While we may be familiar with a few dozen grape names, let us remember that in the vitus vinfera category alone there are over 5,000 identified varieties.

However, when you include vitus riparia, vitis lambrusca, human developed crosses (cross between two grapes in the same species), and hybrids (cross between two different species of vine), we reach the outstanding figure of close to 10,000 wine grape varieties.

However, as we all know; grape varieties may come and go. Some have disappeared completely due to natural disasters (I wonder how many native grapes have disappeared due to phylloxera). Some simply became too uninteresting to continue planting. Some, thought lost, have thankfully re-emerged, due to human perseverance. And others, while known locally or regionally, have become international accepted and admired by restaurateurs and wine lovers alike. In the wine world, the meaning of obscurity can change quickly.

One look at the Old World tells you all you need to know. There are over 600 native grapes in Spain, 1,000 in Italy and over 200 in Greece. And what about Croatia, Georgia, Lebanon, and others? It staggers the mind.

So here are a few fascinating unknown, or rather less known, grapes for you to discover.

 

Italy

Recantina

Recantina was a very favoured, established, and respected grape in the area of Treviso for over four centuries—until Napoleon arrived that is. Arriving in northern Italy, he was adamant to introduce French varieties to the area, and whatever was the respected and admired regional grape was to be ripped out and replanted with French. Recantina became the main target. Thought totally lost for centuries, only a few plants survived thanks to the work of viticulturists at the Conegliano Research Center. Then Joe Giusti (a Canadian-raised successful entrepreneur) of Societa Agricola Giusti del Col was the first to decide to plant an experimental plot and see what would develop. He loves to tell the story of how unimpressed he was at first, only to be told by his chief winemaker, Mirco Pozzobon, to be patient. After 14 months of wine slowly aging in oak barrels, a magical thing happened. “It was like a miracle, with aromas of fresh violets, and on the palate it was fruity and spicy, with a note of white pepper in the finish,” Joe often repeats. His first vintage of 2004 sold in Canada in a heartbeat. His latest vintage, 2014, is absolutely delicious (92 points by me).

 

Pecorino

Anything to do with the Pecorino cheese you ask? Well yes, if you know that “pecora” means sheep and that this indigenous grape and sugar-rich variety was so dubbed because of its sweet appeal to woolly creatures.

The story of the re-emergence of pecorino is rather fascinating. Pecorino, like so many indigenous grapes, was in danger of totally disappearing, so when Guido Cocci Grifoni, a producer in the Marche and an avid regional historian, came across the name, he quickly became fascinated. In 1982, the hunt for Pecorino took him to the hamlet of Pescara and a farmer named Cafini, who had been tending a vineyard 1,000 metres above sea level.

Cocci Grifoni quickly grafted cuttings from the property onto about 100 rootstocks at a vineyard in nearby Offida, now a key appellation for some of the best Pecorino wines. Today the variety has spread to Abruzzo, Umbria, Tuscany, and Liguria. It even spawned its own book, “The Rediscovery of Pecorino”, published in 2009.

In Alberta there are 15 Pecorino producers including the pioneering Cocci Grifoni.

 

Spain

Mencia

This is a regional grape that is mainly found in Bierzo. What makes Mencía special is that it has the ability to age and offers rich aromas in the glass. You will taste a subtle crushed gravel or granite-like minerality in the texture, which often contributes to its black peppery taste (in Portugal it’s known as Jaen). If you love Pinot Noir and other aromatic reds, then Mencía is something worth investigating.

We are now seeing a good number of examples in the Alberta market.

 

Greece

Though they’ve been around for four millennia, Greek wines are still overlooked today. Therefore their grapes remain undiscovered to most. Following are my favourites:

 

Assyrtiko

This grape is the source of minerally, bone-dry, citrus-edged white wines. On the isle of Santorini, Assyrtiko and other vines are tied into a basket shape to protect the fruit against the continuous wind.

 

Xinomavro

The grape is from Náoussa in Macedonia, the heart of Xinomavro. This red has floral and spice aromas, firm tannins, and vibrant fruit.

 

Other Countries

Other grapes worth noticing and available in Alberta are Saperavi from Georgia, Bogdanusa from Croatia, Obaideh and Merwah from Lebanon.

 

Remember to discover, experiment, and always taste! The book Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz is essential reading.