WINES of the TIMES
By CHRISTINE SISMONDO
Friday, May 10, 2019 Print Edition, Page P42
The bottles pouring at the best bars and restaurants right now are energetic, juicy, crunchy and, above all, made for drinking, not cellaring or pontificating over. It's also true, however, that a lot of today's buzzy vins de soif are expressions of obscure varietals indigenous to regions that most of us didn't realize made wine. CHRISTINE SISMONDO offers a primer to help you navigate the more adventurous pages of your favourite wine list
DELICATE DOWN UNDER
Otherwise known for oaked-up, bold and jammy reds, winemakers from a couple of different Australian regions are eager to show a gentler side of their wine. Near Melbourne in Victoria, Gippsland, a vast wine zone with a wide range of microclimates, boasts great diversity and a burgeoning reputation for outstanding Pinot Noir, a varietal that's a natural fit in some of the cooler pockets of southern Australia. Similarly, keep an eye out for natural wines from Adelaide Hills, which is where Mark Cuff of the Living Vine says all the trendy new organic and biodynamic wineries have headed to take advantage of higher altitudes and cooler micro-climates.
Look for perfectly crisp expressions of Chardonnay, as well as medium-bodied fresh Grenache and Syrah blends.
REGIONS TO DRINK: Gippsland, Adelaide Hills
EMERGING VARIETALS: Pinot Noir, Grenache WHAT TO SPEND: $50* AUSTRIA AU NATUREL At the top of almost every sommelier's list of new favourites is Burgenland, a region in eastern Austria that's lighting a path for the natural wine scene all over Europe, thanks to an unusually high concentration of organic and biodynamic producers. The most famous is certainly Meinklang, whose esoteric petillantnaturels (or naturally sparkling) and "foam" wines are staples on many lists. But as Lexi Wolkowski, sommelier at Toronto's Brothers Food and Wine points out, they make a highly approachable Gruner as well. Gruner, of course, has been synonymous with Austrian wine for the past decade or so, but somms like Wolkowski are more keen on the new generation of light, lightly aged and crunchy Austrian reds, especially those made from native varietals such as Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and, the most rare, St. Laurent. It's often compared to a Pinot Noir, although there is no relation.
REGION TO DRINK: Burgenland EMERGING VARIETALS: St. Laurent, Zweigelt, Blaufrankisch WHAT TO SPEND: $30 and up* MID-OCEAN ERUPTION The struggle is real for grapes in the Azores, the Portuguese islands in the middle of the Atlantic. No matter how much its growers try to shelter the grapes from the harsh elements, heavy rain, gusty winds and damaging salt from the ocean are constant problems. Why bother? Well, because a little hardship can build character in a wine and, when it does go well, it's fabulous, thanks to volcanic soil and unique local grapes, such as Arinto dos Açores and Terrantez do Pico (the latter was once used to make sweet Madeira wine). The production of these highly acidic, crisp, salty and eminently food-friendly whites is super small, so they can be rare finds. Look for Azores Wine Company, a leader in the region. Drink now, preferably with seafood.
REGION TO DRINK: Pico EMERGING VARIETALS: Terrantez do Pico, Arinto dos Açores, Verdelho WHAT TO SPEND: $30 to $40*
EASTERN EUROPEAN PROMISE John Szabo, Canada's first master sommelier, firmly believes that Hungary is in a pretty good spot right now, since it's one of the "last undiscovered traditional wine-producing countries."
It explains why he is a partner in a vineyard and winery in the Eger region. Until relatively recently, Hungarian wine has been a tale of two extremes. On one end of the spectrum, there's the cheap and cheerful Bull's Blood, a blend of Merlot and Kekfrankos. On the other, we have pricey dessert wines from Tokaji, made from one of several varietals of grapes - notably Furmint - that is deliberately allowed to get mouldy, and then fermented for years until it's practically a syrup. Both varietals are being reimagined by a new generation of winemakers like Szabo, who are now producing bright and zesty expressions of Kekfrankos and perfectly dry Furmint wines. This is one country on this list whose options benefit from a bit of cellaring, from two years up to 10.
REGIONS TO DRINK: Eger, Tokaj-Hegyalja EMERGING VARIETALS: Furmint, Kekfrankos WHAT TO SPEND: Under $35* BAJA BACK TO ITS ROOTS Despite the fact that Mexico was the first European colony in the Americas to cultivate wine (Spaniards planted black Mision grapes as early as 1524), and the fact that wine producers in Baja California have been producing high-quality, classic, west-coast expressions of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon for years, this region is still under the radar. Mostly, that's because a lot of people are still fairly incredulous that "Mexican wine" isn't a punchline. That's likely to change quickly given the level of excitement natural wine geeks have expressed over developments in the Valle de Guadalupe, an area just north of Ensenada that's developing a rep among foodies as the centre of Baja-Med cuisine. Much of the excitement is being generated by Bichi, a winery operated by Tijuana brothers Noel and Jair Tellez, who are salvaging the unpopular, funky and rustic Mision grape (also known as Pais) by making it the hero of their unconventional (and polarizing) low-intervention wines. In addition, there are some spectacular skin-contact rosado and orange wines hailing from this winery and its neighbours.
REGION TO DRINK: Valle de Guadalupe EMERGING VARIETALS: Rosa del Peru, Mision WHAT TO SPEND: $30 and up* A KIWI SPOT MAKES WAVES You'd be forgiven for thinking that Marlborough was New Zealand's only wine region, given that its mass-produced fruity Sauvignon Blanc has dominated the export market. Before Marlborough, though, there was Gisborne, a remote region on the north island that enjoys ample sun, plenty of shelter from harsh winds and long, dry summers during which cool climate grapes such as Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Arneis and Pinot Noir can develop phenolic complexity.
Thanks to the efforts of biodynamic and organic producers such as Milton Vineyards, which produce truly special, world-class expressions of these classic varietals, surfside Gisborne is starting to come back into the light and out from the long shadow cast by better-known Kiwi regions.
REGION TO DRINK: Gisborne EMERGING VARIETALS: Chenin Blanc, Gewurtztraminer, Arneis, Pinot Noir WHAT TO SPEND: $30 to $50
ROMANIA, REIMAGINED Romania's vineyards did not exactly thrive under the communist rulers who presided from the end of the Second World War until the revolution of 1989.
For nearly half a century, under Nicolae Ceausescu and his predecessor, the wine industry was collectivized and put under state control, which transformed a region with one of the oldest winemaking traditions in the world into a mass producer of plonk. After Ceausescu was deposed, the first wave of Romanian exports didn't exactly excite the imagination of the wine world, but thanks to the efforts of small producers and foreign investors, the landscape is changing and some high-quality, yet affordable, juicy expressions of Pinot Noir are setting the stage for this region. At present, budget-friendly orange wines are making their way into the United Kingdom, but the real show-stopper will likely involve the Feteasca grapes from vines that escaped the European invasion of phylloxera insects in the late 19th century. They are notoriously difficult to work with and, as such, have great intellectual appeal to high-level wine geeks.
REGIONS TO DRINK: Banat, Crisana EMERGING VARIETALS: Pinot Noir, Feteasca Neagra WHAT TO SPEND: Under $25* CAVA GOES FLAT IN CATALONIA Since Spain's drinking culture has been thoroughly mined by Canadian tastemakers who have adopted everything from Basque cider to sherry en rama (raw sherry) for their tapas bars, we might well imagine we've seen it all and there's nothing left to surprise us. Enter Xarel-lo, a grape used to make Cava wine that's been pulled out of the blend and fermented on its own to make a still wine with remarkable structure and acidity. Other cava grapes, notably Macabeo, are also being produced as still wines in the region, too, but Xarel-lo seems to be the one that can best hold its own against oysters and salty, greasy, canned Mediterranean fish - the way it's served in Catalonia. One of the more common expressions seen in Canada is Pares Balta's, which was one of the first producers in the region to go fully organic and biodynamic.
Drink now, or wait a year to see to what extent its smooth, melon character has developed.
REGION TO DRINK: Penedes EMERGING VARIETALS: Xarel-lo, Macabeo WHAT TO SPEND: $20 to $30* SOUTH AMERICAN SPOTLIGHT Uruguay is having a moment. And not just because of its legalized weed, progressive politics and great beaches. Its quirky wine scene, which has given new life to the Tannat grape, is getting a lot of love. Usually reserved for blends, the intense and bitter Tannat varietal is a headliner in Uruguay, where small producers are having a lot of success taming its over-the-top personality and turning it into a delicious wine that pairs perfectly with the rich, grass-fed organic meats the region is known for. Bodega Garzon was the first producer to gain international accolades for a lengthy, berry-forward and lightly bitter single vineyard expression, but others are achieving similar results. Look forward to seeing many more herbal, fresh and ready-to-drink Albarinos from the region, as well.
REGION TO DRINK: Maldonado EMERGING VARIETALS: Tannat, Albarino WHAT TO SPEND: $20 to $35*
ILLUSTRATIONS BY CAMILLE POMERLO