The Thinking Man’s Guide To Drinking Wine
Gravner Vineyard, Oslavia, Italy. Photograph by Mr Alvise Barsanti, courtesy of Gravner
Forget shiraz and pinot – uncork one of the 1,348 other varieties of grape that usually go unloved.
Whether perusing a hefty restaurant list, or scrolling Drop Wine’s in-app offers, wine choice anxiety oft descends, and the “safe” option – aka the second least expensive wine – gets poured again. Might a deeper understanding of lesser known grapes fortify us against wine ennui? “What bothers people like [me] is that while 1,368 grapes may exist, the sad truth is that 80 per cent of the world’s wine is produced from only 20 grapes,” says Mr Jason Wilson, author of Godforsaken Grapes: A Slightly Tipsy Journey Through The World Of Strange, Obscure And Underappreciated Wine. This convivial and wildly informative paean to the rare, forgotten and maligned is primed to intoxicate novices and oenophiles alike; while Mr Wilson’s enthusiasm and irreverence ensures his narrative flights persist in the mind.
Given our insatiable hunger for “authentic” flavours, coupled with the proliferation of “new-wave” wines across bistros, bars and deli counters – it pays to refresh collective palates. And with Mr Wilson valuing pleasure over prestige – as he says, “drinkable being, in my book, just about the highest virtue of a wine” – he’s a reliable guide. In the book, he calls out the Francophile snobbery of his home state New Jersey’s Heritage Vineyard (while savouring its chambourcin), debunks faddy tendencies, eg, the rise/fall/rise of grüner veltliner, and appraises the real-world value of #unicornwines such as ramiscos from Portugal’s Colares region, for “…wine is not a ladder to climb. Wine is a maze, a labyrinth, one we gladly enter, embracing the fact that we don’t know where it will take us, and that we’ll likely never find our way out.” Corkscrews out, adventure beckons. Below, with the help of raconteur-like words from Mr Jason Wilson, we pluck five grape varieties from Godforsaken Grapes to broaden your horizons.
Produced by Mr Nicolas Gonin, Saint-Chef, Isère, France
Despite having produced wine for more than 1,000 years, the region of Isère was so decimated by France’s 19th-century phylloxera plague that it is yet to produce a wine that qualifies for an Appellation d’origine contrôlée, the pinnacle of the nation’s classification system; its wines labelled simply “vins de pays”. Commercial clout aside, Isère is “a cradle of rare, indigenous grapes,” and feted Saint-Chef winemaker Mr Nicolas Gonin’s revivified persan and altesse grapes are beloved of intrepid drinkers worldwide, as he says: “I have much better luck with young sommeliers in New York. They don’t necessarily need the prestige, or a famous appellation. They’re curious.”
Featured in the Himmel Auf Erden blended white wine by Mr Christian Tschida, Burgenland, Austria
Renowned for his organic, unfiltered wines, avant-garde Austrian winemaker, Mr Christian Tschida’s tasting methods prove duly idiosyncratic. Mr Tschida and Mr Wilson discuss tiresome commercial tastes, and the potential of natural wines to outlive the lot. As for the drinks: Non-Tradition, a grüner veltliner varietal proves inspired, and Himmel Auf Erden piques Mr Wilson’s interest as “…an odd blend of pinot blanc and sämling 88… which has been having a moment among the wine cognoscenti at home.”
Featured in amber wine, by Mr Josko Gravner, Oslavia, Italy / Oslavje, Slovenia
An ancient Friuli grape, ribolla gialla, has found fresh favour via our current adulation of “skin contact” (or “amber”, or “orange” wines.) A natural wine pioneer, Mr Gravner, once produced commercial chardonnay and pinot grigio, but jettisoned those vines and attendant chemical additives for this indigenous variety and native, wild yeasts. He also adopted traditional Georgian clay vessels, amphora, in place of wooden barrels and steel tanks. The results, according to Mr Wilson: “It was indeed hard to pin down what was going on with Gravner’s ribolla gialla… My mind kept changing, minute by minute as we tasted – I loved it, I hated it. One moment I thought Gravner was a genius, the next… maybe the emperor was wearing no clothes.”
By ViniRari by Mr Giulio Moriondo, Aosta, Italy
A teacher-cum-wine maker with an incredible affinity for local grapes, Mr Giulio Moriondo’s mountainside vineyards boast uncommon treasures such as cornalin, vien de nus and fumin grapes, as well as wholly new mutations – a common grape species trait according to Mr Wilson’s travelling companion, Mr Jean-Luc Etievent, cofounder of Wine Mosaic, a Parisian nonprofit that future-proofs threatened grapes. Souches Mères, a blend of cornalin, vien de nus and petite rouges grapes produced by Mr Moriondo, sees Mr Wilson waver over his “wine is not art” stance. “I’ve almost never encountered [wine] that conveys complex emotions like fear or loss or grief in the way a great painting or piece of music can. But in [Souches Mères] I felt a profound sadness.”
Produced by Bela vineyard, Somló, Hungary
“All of the wines that Hammond had poured me… were unsettling, but in the most positive way. I felt like these grapes, once again, reset my wine compass in some meaningful way,” says Mr Wilson of an afternoon with New York wine importer, and “eastern” evangelist, Ms Tara Hammond. As well as 2012 Juhfark – an opulent yet light, volcanic white by the “grand old man of Somló”, 90-plus-year-old Mr Béla Fekete – they also taste grapes such as rkatsiteli, and saperavi from Georgia, kadarka and furmint from Hungary, and žilavka from Bosnia, concurring that Central and Eastern Europe are ripe for further (lightly sozzled) exploration.