It’s easy to become mired in an, albeit very comfortable, wine-drinking rut. A glass of your favourite New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc/Rioja/Spanish rosé (delete as appropriate) of an evening is like slipping on a pair of comfy slippers, or settling into the sofa to watch an episode of Midsomer Murders. It’s all about comfort and familiarity, immersing yourself in something you know you are going to enjoy, without the need to make an effort.
Every now and again, however, we need to give our comfortable lives a bit of shock treatment, shake things up, upset the routine. Some very energetic people might consider taking up a new sport or learning a new language in order to challenge themselves; I get my thrills from trying new grape varieties from unfamiliar places.
I got the chance to take a walk on the wild side and undertake a mini grape variety safari this week, at a tasting billed as “Emerging Regions”. Some were more emerging than others: Spain? Chile? Germany? Some were genuinely new to wine production, such as India. Others were emerging only in the sense that their wines are as yet relatively unknown here in the UK, yet wines have been made there for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
There is a fairly genteel and slow motion spat taking place in the wine world at the moment, concerning the origins of grape-growing and winemaking. Archaeological evidence from Georgia and the Transcaucasus region provides evidence for winemaking there since 4,000 BC, with many believing actual winemaking going back further, to 7,000 BC. However, the more recent science of DNA analysis has thrown up additional, and perhaps contradictory, evidence which could mean that Turkey was the cradle of winemaking, perhaps as far back as 9,000 BC. Whatever the outcome of this academic tussle, what is clear is that Georgia and Turkey are home to a host of unique grape varieties, many of which may be very ancient in origin.
If you come across Georgian wines, you’ll be faced with an intriguing choice of tongue-twisting grape varieties such as the white Mtsvane and Rkatsiteli, plus the more user-friendly red Saperavi, often fermented in Qvevri (large terracotta vessels, similar to ancient amphorae).
Over the border in Turkey there is another world of native varieties to discover. The names can look scary, but the secret seems to be to go at them with gusto, imagining yourself an Italian speaking German and deliver them with confidence. Unless you are speaking to a native Turk, they probably have no more idea than you do. I found the whites I tasted made from Emir and Narince pretty simple, but the reds from Öküzgözü (or ox eye in English), Kalecik Karasi and the splendidly named Boğazkere (meaning throat scraper!) full of character and appeal. Look out for them the next time you eat in a Turkish restaurant, as this is still where you’re most likely to find them at the moment.
I admit to having wine-spotter tendencies. I don’t possess a notebook listing all the varieties that I taste and hardly ever wear my anorak except for country walks. However, I do get a bit of a kick out of trying new and unusual grapes, so the Emerging Regions tasting was a happy hunting ground.
Graševina from Croatia may be more familiar to you than you think, if you’re a wine drinker of a certain vintage. I remember my Dad picking up a bottle of Lutomer Laski Riesling from Peter Dominic back in the Seventies, presumably for the ladies to sip with their beef stroganoff – Graševina is that same grape. Freed from lowest common denominator collective farming and the dead hand of state-controlled wine-making, it makes a nicely peachy, soft and flavourful wine. Dropping the Riesling from the name is also helpful – it is not related to that grape, which (very unfairly) has its own image problem in this country. More complex white wines are also made from the Pošip grape, primarily on the Croation islands of Dalmatia.
Romania is having something of a success at the moment with its soft, spicy and very reasonably priced Pinot Noir. I hope that consumer acceptance of the notion of quality wines from here will also help to open the way for the country’s cracking native varieties: the white Fetească Alba and especially its black counterpart Fetească Neagră deserve a wider audience. Not as easy to say as Pinot Noir, perhaps, but worth searching out.
I rounded off my grape safari by bagging a brace of Macedonian varieties – white Zilavka and red Vranec (or Vranac). The red, in particular, impressed me with its full-bodied, dusky spice and black fruit.
After all that vinous adventuring, did I continue the theme with a glass of something new and stimulating with dinner? Nah, a glass of Rioja and a bowl of chilli con carne did just fine.
Searching out the new is all very well but, in the wise words of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, “It’s very nice to go travelling. But it’s oh so nice to come home.”