Friday, 13 May 2016

Indigenous grapes, forgotten grapes?

I had the opportunity to attend two tastings in a role organised by the Hong Kong Wine Society on two classic European wine regions, one in conjunction with The Drinks Business on the Douro Valley in Portugal and the other one jointly presented with Cottage Vineyards on Piedmont region in Italy. Both countries are known for their vast arrays of indigenous grapes and the tastings, with focus on these varieties, were like fresh air.

The Douro wine we tasted, from Wine & Soul and Quinta de Maritávora, were made by the same winemaker Jorge Serôdio Borges who is also the owner of Wine & Soul. Douro is the home of port but still red wine has been gaining fame in the last 10 years. Jorge reckons now is the turn of Douro still white wine. Wine & Soul Guru, from a 50 years old vineyard planted with Gouveio, Viosinho, Rabigato and Códega do Larinho (field blend), is a light-bodied wine with only 12% alcohol. It was barrel fermented with 50% new oak but it has such intense fruit aromas that the wood just added complexity to the wine instead of overpowering it. The wine was a good match with the Pasties de Bacalhau being served but it would be equally impressed with grilled prawns or sardines. New vineyard plantings in the Douro tend to be of single variety for better management but Jorge now goes back to field blend planting. He blended wine from different varieties planted separately but now believes vines maturing together allows different varieties to interact in the vineyards resulting in more complex blend. Well, I don’t think we can argue with him - his Guru testifies his theory!

The two reds that followed were interesting comparison. Both were blends dominated by Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, amongst others. The Maritávora Grande Reserva 2011 was concentrated but with such freshness that reminded me of a young port without the sweetness. Wine & Soul Pintas 2009, a mega-blend with 30 varieties, is elegant and multi-dimensional with earthier notes. Jorge said Portugal is the New Old World, where indigenous grapes are used to make clean, fresh and balanced wine.

Italy’s indigenous grapes were mostly uprooted or lost. Fortunately a few committed winemakers have not forgotten them. Cottage Vineyards invited two winemakers from Piedmont to showcase three such varieties: Erbaluce, Vespolina and Pelaverga Piccolo.

I first tasted Erbaluce in 2014 at Vinitaly and it was such a discovery. A light -bodied wine with floral, smoky tones and a mineral finish, it is refreshing and in my view, a much more suitable wine for the Asian warm and humid climate. Jancis Robinson once said the better Erbaluce could challenge Arneis and Gavi, the leading white wines from Piedmont. The one we tried, Pietro Cassina ‘Nivis’ Coste della Sesia Bianco DOC 2014 (yes, 100% Erbaluce) was exactly what I remembered and it went extremely well with the seared scallop on mashed potato and hazelnut - hazelnut being a famous produce in Piedmont. Pietro Cassina ‘Tera Russa’ is 100% Vespolina grown on red soil, an earthy wine with notes of spices and herbs. Vespolina was nearly lost to phylloxera and there is only just over 100ha plantings left in Italy.

Another gem was Castello di Verduno ‘Basadone’ Verduno DOC 2013 made of 100% Pelaverga Piccolo. The grape is only grown in the tiny village of Verduno and is often blended with other grapes - another forgotten grape luckily revived in the 70s when Castello
di Verduno then winemaker dedicated a vineyard, Basadone, to the variety. The wine was eventually promoted to DOC status in 1983 and although there are 11 producers in Verduno, total planting of the variety is just over 20ha. The wine is light and elegant with sour cherry and spicy tones. Basadone means ‘kissing women’ in local dialect and winemaker Mario Andrion hopes the wine could reawaken wine lovers’ desire to these forgotten grapes.

Both Portugal and Italy are my favourite European wine countries and I love indigenous grapes. I hope the new generation of Portuguese and Italian winemakers will not forget their history, and keep crafting wines from these treasures.

Wine & Soul and Quinta de Maritávora are available from Maritávora Asia Ltd.
Pietro Cassina and Castello di Verduno are available from Cottage Vineyards.

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