“Want something new and different? Bored with the same old? Go Native. Europe has a huge representation of indigenous grapes––read “native”––and more and more wines made from these grapes are finding their way to New Mexico.”
So you know a Cabernet is going to be perfect with ribeye or roast beef, but the beef for tonight’s meal is a marinated flank steak. Or the salmon you have planned is poached and served cool with capers, so the Willamette Pinot Noir you would normally have with grilled salmon is going to overwhelm your delicate preparation. Want something new and different? Bored with the same old? Go Native. Europe has a huge representation of indigenous grapes––read “native”––and more and more wines made from these grapes are finding their way to New Mexico. They may be single varietals or multi-grape blends. The wine press will often refer to varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as “international varieties.” They are used to make wines all over Europe and the New World, sometimes in areas that make you scratch your head for the incongruity. But Europe, especially Spain, Portugal, France and Italy all have local specialties in cuisine and wine. The wine lover is always looking for the new and different, the crazy and esoteric. New Mexico restaurants are starting to embrace these wines and specialty wine shops are stocking them on their shelves. Here are some especially unusual examples of wines in that category to be found locally, some of them arriving this spring.
You have heard of Spanish Albariño, but what about Godello or Hondarribi? In North Central Spain, Bizkaiko Txakolina is a wine appellation or D.O. (Denominación de Origen) that produces a bracing, mouth-watering white wine from the Hondarribi grape. This is the Basque region, famous for its separatist tendencies and a language related to no other in Europe. For a locally available version, try the Itsas Mendi Bizkaiko Txakolina, a lovely super-crisp summer white wine for the drinker who prefers Sauvignon Blanc to Chardonnay. Further west in Spain, and again influenced by proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, is the D.O. Valdeorras. Here, the excitement is found in Godello, displaying crispness but with slightly elevated richness and more pear/apple flavors. An example that just became available in New Mexico, is the Rafael Palacios Bolo Godello. This wine may take some tracking down, as it has undergone a label change and used to have the proprietary name Sabrego. These are two great summer white varietals that would pair beautifully with lighter food dishes.
As for red, the Spanish island of Mallorca also has unusual native grapes. Look for Anima Negra AN/2, currently available in the 2010 vintage. The blend includes a familiar 15% Syrah but is 65% Callet and 20% Mantonegre-Fogoneu and the wine has enough longevity, structure and tannin to justify 13 months aging in French and American oak.
Moving to France, one of its relatively undiscovered corners is the island of Corsica. Here, the topography is dramatic, the French call it L’Ile de Beauté, the island of beauty, and the culture is unique. Street and road signs are in two languages—French and Corsican. The interior of the islandhas two ski areas. There are world-class trekking and hiking trails in the mountains and the wines can be just as stunning. This brief summary would not be complete without one Rosé, and it is a great one. Abbatucci Cuvee Faustine Rosé, around $30 a bottle, is a delight, totally dry, and the 2015 vintage arrives this Spring. You may not have consumed Sciacarellu (“shock-ah-rell-oo”) before but this 100-percent varietal example is perfect with lighter salmon dishes. From the same island comes a great value, the Maestracci Clos Reginu. The importer describes the wines from this estate as “quintessential food wines,” and whenever restaurateurs and chefs taste this wine, they immediately start mentally pairing it with unusual dishes. The blend contains 15% of our now familiar Sciacarellu with 35% of what some ampelographers (grape scientists) identify as the local variant of Sangiovese called Niellucciu (or Nielluccio), 30% Grenache, 15% Syrah, and 5% Mourvèdre. The result is something of an herbal Côtes du Rhone or Languedoc Rouge, with subtle red and dark fruit overtones.
Italy is known for having one of the highest numbers of indigenous grape varieties in Europe. We have to pick and choose, but Southern Italy is a great trove for this type of wine. In Campania, the region extending inland from Naples, we may be familiar with wines made from Fiano and Greco, but Terredoro di Paola Coda di Volpe (“the tail of the fox,” named for the shape of the cluster) has a crisp, delicate finish and is gaining distribution. From Calabria, the toe of the Italian geographical boot, an example of Gaglioppo (gah-lyee-o-po), new to New Mexico, is the Statti Gaglioppo, ruby red and full of dark fruit and floral notes. It is somewhat atypical for the varietal’s usually lighter pigmentation, and so is perfect with many grilled red meats.
Portugal is also famous for an astonishing number of indigenous grapes, around 250. Very few of these varieties have been transplanted to other countries, and perhaps lack of viticultural familiarity is the reason for the limited number of Portuguese table wines in New Mexico. You can find refreshing low-alcohol Vinho Verdes at different price points—and Tawny and Vintage Port Dessert wines—but what about dinner wines? The Quinta de La Rosa Estate Red, available in the 2012 vintage, uses grapes traditionally reserved for Port—Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz—to produce a dry wine. The wine has a freshness that makes it immediately appealing, but will age well if you tuck some away for a year or two. After all, these are the grapes that produce Vintage Port, which can age for decades.
Of course, other countries in Europe have interesting varietals as well. From the Republic of Macedonia, formerly part of the Soviet created Yugoslavia, comes two obscure varietals, the white Rkaciteli––described by people in the industry as “bright and slippery…delicious and refreshing” and the red Vranec, an “inky black fruit bomb,” a perfect wine for the Australian Shiraz drinker. Tikves Rkaciteli and Tikves Vranec are here and underpriced because of their lack of distribution. Also from Central Europe, is a wine made from a very familiar varietal grown on the banks of the Danube in Slovakia, a locale that is very unfamiliar, even to the wine geek. The Chateau Bela Riesling is an almost dry, floral scented, medium-bodied Riesling made by one of Germany’s most esteemed producers, Egon Mueller. This Riesling is surprisingly well-priced, around $20 a bottle.
Finally, moving to Southeastern Europe, Assyrtiko (ah-seer-tee-ko), from the volcanic island of Santorini in Greece, is highly prized by wine gurus, but patrons of Greek restaurants on the East Coast seem to guzzle the available supply. Boutari Moschofilero (mo-sko-feel-er-o), from the AOC region of Mantinia in the Peloponnese in Greece, is known for its “citrus and floral aromatics” and is a delicious quaff to enjoy while we wait for Assyrtiko to arrive.
Some of these grapes and wines have unpronounceable names. The mere request for the wine can take some courage, but the energetic restaurateur and retailer will help and encourage you. As of this writing, these wines are all in distribution or about to be. Ask for the unusual, the indigenous, the crazy and esoteric, and you are on your way to finding great new pairings in wine and food.
Story by Philip de Give