Sunday, September 30, 2012

Forgotten French Grapes – Moved on to “Better” Places?

When customers ask me where the Malbecs are,  I always respond with another question— Argentinian or French?  They look at me quizzically, as though I have no idea what I’m talking about.  I could respond the same way if they asked about Tannat, but no one ever inquires about that wonderful grape.
Many grapes originate in one country but later are found to grow wonderfully in another country and often result in wines completely different from the originals. These wines are fun to compare in “terroir tastings.”

Malbec is an excellent example. This grape originated in Cahors, France and is grown throughout Bordeaux. It’s one of the five grapes that can be blended into the great wines from that region. Wines from Cahors consist mostly of Malbec with a small contribution from another varietal, usually Merlot. These wines are complex, structured with layers of fruit and moderate to fairly big tannins.  Nice examples are Chateau Saint Sernin, Clos La Coutale and Domaine de Cause, all under $20.00. Malbec was later brought to Argentina where it produces massively fruit forward, low tannin wines of medium complexity that are easy drinking, user friendly, and inexpensive. Good examples to try are Durigutti, Renacer Punto Final and  Catena.

Carmenere originated in France and is known as the “forgotten Bordeaux varietal.” It is the sixth grape that is allowed to be blended into Bordeaux, although it has nearly disappeared from that region due to difficulty with ripening. It was brought to Chile, where it prospers. It results in wines with a nose of leather, spice, and chocolate and deep black and blue fruit flavors mixed with spice and pepper. Very nice examples are Odfjell Orzada and Apaltagua.

When the book The Red Wine Diet, which discussed the benefits of red wine on heart health, was published, the author spoke of Tannat, the major grape found in Madiran wines from Southwestern France. Madirans tend to be quite tannic, rustic, and complex. The fiercely tannic Tannat grape is usually blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Cabernet Franc resulting in much softer wines. A great example is 1907, an incredibly complex wine for only $13.00. This grape was brought to South America by Basque immigrants where it has flourished. In fact, it is now the national grape of Uruguay. It also grows well in Argentina. The resulting wine is much more fruit forward and less tannic than Madiran, with lots of dark fruit flavor. A nice is example is made by Rodolfo.

Lots of other grapes move to other places and do well. Grenache originated in Spain and now flourishes in southern France and in Australia, Syrah is everywhere. Zinfandel, known as “America’s grape,” actually originated in Croatia, traveling to America where it is known as Zinfandel, and to Italy where it is known as Primitivo.

So try the same varietal from various parts of the globe. You’ll find out what a difference soil, climate, altitude, and differing winemaking techniques make.  And you’ll no doubt uncover some new favorites!

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