Quick, name a wine grape that starts with the letter ‘Q’. How about ‘Y’… or ‘J’?
Remember Julie and Julia (2009), the book and movie in which a food writer cooks every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (2001)? When Wine Grapes landed in 2012 – Jancis Robinson MW’s monumental tome of 1,242 pages weighing in at 3kg – the notion of a wine version of this feat hit me. No non-pathologically-obsessive human can likely taste all 1,368 vine varieties named in the book, but surely I could sensibly assemble 26 varietal wines from Abbuoto to Zweigelt and every letter in between?
Why? Because diversity and discovery matter.
There was a time, in the mid 1990s, when I feared that most of the world’s vineyards would be planted over to just a handful of international varieties. But now, I’m delighted to say, the pendulum has swung very firmly in the other direction. From Chile to Australia via all corners of Europe, curious growers and vintners are hard at work discovering and experimenting with local and historic varieties. — Jancis Robinson MW
Over the course of this new series, I’ll wend my way through the alphabet. Your homework: seek out these and other indigenous obscurities / curiosities, and report back to me. Post your finds with the hashtag #grapetionary. Between you, me and our other Vinosity readers, who knows how many of those 1,368 we can tackle!
I’ll begin with a trio of whites from France, Portugal and Italy. It’s an alphabetical and serendipitously logical progression of from light-and-chuggable to full-and-cellarable. FYI, the exact bottles tasted here might be impossible to source in your city, so consult a trusted sommelier for suitable alternatives made from the same varieties.
To help, I enlisted Madeline Maldonado, da Toscano Restaurant’s ‘Wine Whisperer’ in New York and Esquire magazine’s 2020 Beverage Director of the Year, who says: ‘I’m a fan of the esoteric, the weirder, and the more obscure. The smaller the production, I’m into it, especially with Italy.’
Aligoté is a pre-phylloxera Burgundian mainstay, it lost its perch when Chardonnay took-off on grafted rootstock. Left behind in the Grand Cru dust, Aligoté was mixed with local cassis to make Kir cocktails in the early 1900s. But fans remained. Bourgogne Aligoté earned appellation status in 1937, and in 1998 one Côte Chalonnaise village went all-in and promoted Aligoté to its own appellation with strict yields: Bouzeron. Recently, a group of producers and devotees founded an Aligoté advocacy group: ‘Les Aligoteurs’. Aligoté is also gaining popularity in Eastern Europe.
Alcohol: 11.5%. Price: moderate
Tart, flinty and easy-breezy.
MM: Aligoté is very new – as far the practices of Burgundy go. It’s less expensive than Premier Cru white Burgundy and people think it’s lesser quality for young drinking because they’ve seen vineyard drinkers sipping Aligoté during harvest. It’s most definitely sessionable [ie, suitable for drinking over an extended period] and it has become cool and hip.
Bical is a step-up to a more serious wine style – that’s despite its cute nickname, Borrado das Moscas, or ‘fly droppings’, for the little brown dots that appear on its berries when ripe. Aromatic, fresh and structured, with peach, apricot and tropical notes. Typically found in Portugal’s Bairrada and Dão regions, it’s often blended and used to make sparkling wine.
Alcohol: 12%. Price: moderate
Fresh acidity with pears and persistent minerality. Fruit-driven mid-palate that finishes dry and clean.
MM: The best Bicals have a great Riesling quality.
Coda di Volpe Bianca is a prime example of a ne’er forgotten variety enjoying a modern resurgence. This ancient variety of Italy’s Campania is finding a groove in the southern DOCs of Sannio, Irpinia and Taburno. Called ‘white foxtail’ because the bunches are reminiscent of a fox’s bushy tail. The wines are full-bodied but refreshing with spice and minerality.
Alcohol: 13.5%. Price: moderate
Aromas of honey, wet stone and herbs. Lively and juicy, with a resinous, honeyed finish.
MM: Serious wine with a cool story. My Chardonnay drinkers appreciate it. This is for the ‘I only drink white wine but I’m gonna have a really serious meal tonight and I don’t wanna do red’ person. This wine screams for food: stew, something rich and hearty, even a porchetta.
Tune-in to Part II: D, E, F. We’ll explore Dornfelder, Ezerjó, and Falanghina. Or, maybe Diolinoir, Erbaluce, and Fetească Albă … or Dindarella, Emir, and Furmint …
Based in Richmond, Virginia, Jason Tesauro is a writer, sommelier, and photojournalist with three books, four cameras, and five children. Look for his work in Esquire, Decanter, Travel+Leisure, and Food & Wine.