It is a great moment when a book is published which genuinely marks a substantive change in our knowledge. For decades, wine people have been dependent on Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s The world atlas of wine and the same team’s Oxford companion to wine as their basic reference books. Oz Clarke and Margaret Rand on grape varieties, Grapes and wines, has not had quite the same stature though it is invaluable; in fact in terms of what varieties taste like it is will continue to be essential reading. But it is no exaggeration to say that we have a new standard work in J Robinson (her again), Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz’s Wine Grapes: a complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours (Penguin 2012). This article is not a full review of this family-bible sized tome but in passing we note its comprehensiveness (all varieties in commercial production) and above all, for the first time ever, the combination of established wine knowledge (volumes, places, flavours) with the results of a decade and a half of new work on DNA testing of varieties. The latter has revolutionised our understanding of the relationships between varieties. The book also is a fantastic resource on wine names in written sources, less revolutionary than the science but also very interesting.
The man behind the science is the Swiss plant geneticist José Vouillamoz. At a seminar at Vinitaly 2013, he recounts the moment which changed his life. Jancis Robinson had asked Carole Meredith of Davis to collaborate on the project which became Wine grapes. Meredith is the mother figure of the new science having demonstrated as recently as 1997 to an amazed world that Cabernet Sauvignon was not an indigenous variety grown since time began in Bordeaux but a relatively modern cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. But Professor Meredith was about to retire from her academic post to go and grow vines … there is soul for you. Instead she recommended a young Swiss scientist who had worked with her and in Italy who might just do the job. He had already surprised the world of Italian wine by demonstrating in 2004, á la Meredith, that Sangiovese was not an historical Tuscan (or Etruscan) variety but the offspring of the little regarded if at its best, high quality Ciliegiolo and a variety, probably from Calabria, which nobody had heard of, Calabrese Montenuovo. José remembers thinking that the new project, summarizing the results of the new DNA-based science, might be six months’ work. Four years of painstaking labour later he has contributed the DNA profiles of the varieties we do now know about and mapped the relationships in his contribution to this remarkable book. Combined with the formidable wine knowledge of Julia Harding and the collaborator-in-chief Jancis, they have collectively put a whole generation of wine students in their permanent debt.
But the great thing about the wine world is the way that it combines hard work (in the field, the winery, university or at the blogger’s laptop) with a celebration of life, with fun. Thus, to launch the book at Vinitaly, José put together a tasting of ‘unusual Italian varieties’. This is entirely appropriate as it turns out that there are no fewer than 377 varieties in commercial production in Italy, the largest number for any country. France for example has 204. Of the six varieties chosen here I had heard of, indeed tasted, two before: Prié from Aosta and Raboso Piave from the north east. But Dorona di Venezia, Cordenosa, Uvalino or Nieddera?
Blanc de Morgex et la Salle, Maison Albert Vevey, Valle d’Aosta, 2012 – made from the Prié variety, the vines are grown at between 900 and 1200m of altitude, on the border between Italy and France. They are trained on a low pergola system to reflect the heat off the ground to enhance ripening. José informs us that one of Prié’s parents is Lughienga Bianca and, rather surprisingly, one of its offspring is Airen, which dominates thousands of hectares of the Spanish Meseta. It is difficult to imagine two more different wine locations than the central Spanish plateau with its near desert conditions and the Valle d’Aosta! The wine is near water white, with light, floral and hay notes on the nose. Surprisingly full flavoured (stone fruit, salt note, slight final bitterness) it has high acidity (8-8.5g TA) and medium length.
Venissa, Tenuta Venissa, 2011 - the planting of the Dorona di Venezia variety stretches to the limit the concept of ‘in commercial production’. This is a one-vineyard variety grown only on one hectare. But it is a very special hectare the Isola Mazzorbo, an island in the Venetian lagoon next to the better known Burano. The settlement is a predecessor of the current city of Venice, long abandoned. (There is a fine picture of the vineyard and island the Dobianchi website. The variety has long been confused with the common Garganega; indeed it is a cross between Bermestia Bianca and Garganega. The reason it is in production is due to the historical interest and the backing of the important Prosecco family, Bisol, who own the vineyard. To add to the interest it is produced in a bottle which recalls the glass making of Venice and enhances mid-gold colour of the wine with its rich palate of mango and honey with just a hint of varnish or shoe polish on the nose. The wine is made in a very traditional manner with 30 days of skin contact and there are perceptible tannins as a result.
Ros de Sanzuàn, Emilio Bulfon, Vino Rosso, 2011 – another one hectare speciality, this time from the Cordenosa variety with as yet unknown parentage. It comes from Emilio Buffon who has a collection of unusual local varieties in Italy’s most north easterly region Friuli Venezia Giulia. Very fruity on nose and palate with candied strawberry carried forward by 20 g/l residual sugar, rustic, sweeter than off-dry.
Uceline, Monferrato Rosso DOC, Cascina Castlèt, Piemonte, 2008 – made from Uvalino, the third and final member of the one-hectare club and related to the ‘not in production’ Neretto di Marengo. Unusually harvested as late as end of October / beginning of December. Black cherry fruit, pepper, dry, good acidity, high tannins; needs time. Apparently has high levels of resveratrol (anti-oxidant).
Rosso, Valle del Tirso IGT, Attilio Contini, 2010 - where is the Nieddera I hear you say? Well here it is. Grown on a massive 60 hectares in Sardinia – with that ‘dd’ combination of consonants it has to be Sardo! Perhaps Spanish in origin, like many Sardinian varieties. Juicy black fruit, black cherry, mint, almond; fine medium plus tannins, long finish of sour cherry.
Gelsaia, Piave Malanotte DOCG, Cecchetto, 2009 – Raboso Piave is responsible for this intense wine grown on 11 hectares in the Veneto. Deep ruby in colour in colour, complex prune, chocolate and blackcurrant cordial with some residual sweetness, fine medium plus tannins and remarkably long. the secret here is that 20% of the grapes go through a partial drying out to concentrate flavours and sugar. Raboso might mean ‘sharp’ in the local patois but in fact this variety is made in a whole range of styles from sparkling to passito though the residual sugar does help with the acidity and the tannins.