Venture outside your vinous comfort zone and you’ll discover a world of weirdly named, wonderful-tasting wines. Here are my off-the-radar favourites from recent years.
Alicante is a city in Spain and the only red wine grape with red flesh. The grape was developed by Frenchman Henri Bouschet, whose father crossed grenache with petit bouschet to come up with alicante. It has been cultivated since 1866.
Alicante had its heyday in California during Prohibition (1919–33), its heady popularity stemming from the grape’s dark colour, which meant it could easily be diluted and still look full strength at a time when alcohol was in high demand.
Today, alicante is grown in Portugal, Corsica, Calabria (Italy), Yugoslavia, Israel and North Africa. It is becoming popular in Maremma, a hot coastal Italian town dubbed “the California of Tuscany”.
Why has alicante been off the radar? Grape crosses are always considered less noble than pure breeds, and alicante produces a large, though not always flavoursome, crop of grapes. It declined in the 1980s but is now making a comeback, particularly in the hot regions of Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence in southern France.
Sicily’s red wine trump card is nero d’avola, the “black grape of Avola”, a town in southeast Sicily. There are other contenders for the Sicilian red wine crown but none has proven as consistently good as nero d’avola, which has the soft fruit appeal of South Island New Zealand pinot noir coupled with the darker, brooding charms of nebbiolo or tempranillo.
To its detriment nero d’avola is rarely allowed to stand alone and is usually blended with big-namers such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. These other grapes mask nero d’avola’s elegance with their loud personalities. When nero d’avola is trusted to deliver on its own merits it shines brightly.
Why has nero d’avola been off the radar? Sicily has been a hotbed for marsala and moscato and its wine scene has been dominated by sweet, low-quality, diluted flavours until recently. Like mainland Italy and most other Mediterranean winemaking regions, Sicily’s wines are rapidly being modernised. The exciting difference in Sicily is the wealth of indigenous grapes, such as nero d’avola, fiano, grillo and inzolia, leading the way in modern winemaking.
According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, a mutation is a spontaneous change in genes occurring during cell division in organisms such as grapevines. Ancient vines were invariably dark skinned; light-skinned varieties are the result of mutations.
Mutations are rife in the pinot family. Fortunately for pinot blanc, a mutation of pinot noir, the M-word hasn’t detracted from its flavour, quality or uniqueness. Where its fellow mutant, pinot gris, is light and often relies on sweetness to keep its vaguely aromatic taste buoyant, pinot blanc is full bodied, nutty and often confused with chardonnay. Widely planted in France and Italy, pinot blanc had a former life as a component in wines from Champagne, where it is often called blanc vrai.
Why has pinot blanc been off the radar? Playing a support role to chardonnay, pinot blanc is similar but is usually not treated with enough respect to be as expressive as most top chardonnays. That said, pinot blanc is growing in popularity in France, central Europe and California.
Verdejo (pronounced “ver-day-ho”) is Spain’s answer to sauvignon blanc, minus the pungent tutti frutti flavours that usually characterise sauvignon. Originally from North Africa, verdejo has been grown in Rueda, Spain, since the 11th century. For most of that time it was treated as a workhorse grape for white wines that were full bodied but overdeveloped with oxidised styles.
In the 1970s the Marqués de Riscal winery, in collaboration with French oenologist Émile Peynaud (1912–2004), spearheaded a fresher style. As fate would have it, verdejo not only resembles sauvignon blanc but is also often blended with it and with the Spanish grape macabeo.
Why has verdejo been off the radar? Saddled with a reputation for low-quality whites and a tradition of over-oaking them, Spain needed a wine revolution to sweep out the dusty styles of old. This began in the early 1990s and its effects are causing a major ripple in the wine world.