Most people know the classic grape varieties like chardonnay and shiraz. They are like lead actors, the stars of most wine tastings. Other varieties tend to play lesser roles, consigned to bit parts. Typically they are blended with other varieties because they are considered to be inadequate on their own.
A tasting of lesser-known grape varieties in Hong Kong last month opened my eyes to some new possibilities. The tasting took place at a new wine bar, California Vintage.
First on offer was the 2009 Cass “rockin’ one” from the Paso Robles region of California. It was a 60:40 blend of rousanne and marsanne. These Rhone region varieties complement each other well. The wine has an acid zing that would cut easily through oily dishes like fried dumplings.
Aromas of honey and green apples matched beautifully with a citrus tang in this well-balanced and integrated wine. It retails for $HK 229.
Next up was the 2005 Chentella grenache from the Fiddletown region of California. It has an earthy nose and a warm and affectionate embrace of silky tannins and dark fruit flavors.
Grenache is not one of my favorite grape varieties, and usually it is blended with shiraz and mouvedre in the Rhone region of France to produce a more rounded drink.
But this grenache stands proudly on its own feet. The tannins are still there, suggesting this is a wine worth putting down for a few more years. Yet it is also friendly and approachable now, the fruit acids balancing the tannins. Retail price at the wine bar: $HK 217.
The next wine, the 2007 Three carignane from the Contra Costa region, is another relatively rare variety ($HK233). In Australia carignane is usually blended with other reds and in Spain it is one of the varieties used in rioja. But in California it is offered as a single variety.
This wine tasted and smelled of sour cherries and had a savory finish. It was more approachable than the Chentella Grenache. The company’s web site says it comes from vines Italian settlers planted in the nineteenth century. The old vines explain its long length.
Another unusual suspect – the phrase came from wine bar manager Susan Darwin – was the 2008 mataro, also from the Three vineyard at Contra Costa ($HK233). Mataro originated in the Catalan region of Spain and is also known as mouvedre in France or monastrell in other parts of Spain.
This grape produces tannic wines that can be high in alcohol (the Three version is almost 15 per cent) and is usually blended with grenache in the Rhone region of France. The latter softens the harsh tannins of the mouvedre.
This wine stood proudly alone, and had a nose of dried thyme with hints of violet and tobacco, and medium length.
Tempranillo is called Spain’s regal grape and it is the main variety in the blend known as rioja. Spanish Conquistadors are believed to have brought the grape to the Americas in the seventeenth century.
The 2007 Yorba tempranillo from the Amador region of California ($HK326) is almost black in color, high in alcohol (14.9 per cent) and has heavy tannins from the 10 months in a combination of new (25 per cent) and old French oak.
This is a wine that needs time to soften. It needs to be paired with hearty meat dishes. Only 348 cases were made so it might be difficult to find in mainland China.
Last wine in the tasting was the 2007 Acorn sangiovese from the Russian River region of northern California ($HK225). This is another big wine that needs time to reveal its full beauty.
It is spicy in the mouth, and then the big tannins take over. The tannins are the result of 17 months in a variety of oak (Hungarian, American and French), with 38 per cent of the oak new.
This is a wine that needs to be consumed with a solid red meat dish, after half a decade of patience.
In all it was an evening of pleasant surprises. Would I forsake varietal superstars for these unusual suspects? Perhaps – it depends on the wine. Overall I remain faithful to my favorites: pinot noir, riesling, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.
* “Little-celebrated wines offer more than sour grapes” in China Daily, 8 October 2011, page 12. Find link here.