Far Flung Grapes – A Different Kind of Wine Travel

“ The Whale that wanders round the Pole is not a table fish. You cannot bake or boil him whole, nor serve him in a dish…”

Hilaire Belloc

I’ve always loved this poem and I remember writing this first verse in my diary before I went off travelling for a couple of years in my younger days. I felt like a whale who couldn’t be pushed into the square hole my career had waiting for me and I just wanted to swim away, unmolested by so-called normality. How many of us who end up with a passion for wine have similar sentiments? It seems to me a more obtuse variant on something I heard more recently: Life is like a book. If you never travel it’s like staying on the same page, forever. It took me a while to escape that square hole, but I got there in the end.

Most people I know who have something of an obsession with wine would not contemplate a life without wine-related travel. Vineyards, aside from giving us a taste of nature, and as well as providing the calm green views we may crave, bring to life the wines which they produce. It’s no cliché to suggest that we can learn a lot about a wine from merely standing on the rock and soil which made it. We feel the sunshine, observe the slope, the way that the sun glints on the river or lake, we smell the scent of garrigue. These are just a handful of things we experience.

Then there’s the place of the wine in the local community. We discover the temperament of the people who make it, we eat the local food which goes with it, and we experience, if we are lucky, the conviviality which usually comes with sharing the joie de vivre it brings.

Of course, those who are lucky enough to live such a life must never forget we are in a tiny minority. In fact, when I began my life of wine travel a great many of the people whose wine I was tasting had not had the same opportunities to travel as I had. They weren’t flown around the world like superstars to pour their wines in London, Tokyo or New York, but equally it was a time before their whole lives were dominated by strings of wine trade employees turning up at their door and hoping to taste every cuvée they produce, no matter that being a “farmer” is of itself a full time job.

Yet during 2020 many tasting rooms have remained silent, and even if in some countries they are open for visitors once more, there are plentiful reasons why many of us are not yet clocking up our air miles. Now do not think that I am oblivious to privilege, but when you had planned a year’s worth of vineyards to visit it is somewhat dispiriting to have that ripped away. Austria in April, Alsace and Jura in July and Australia in November. Even vineyard visits in my own country have been at least postponed due to the semi-lockdown before harvest.

There is more than one way in which we can travel, at least vicariously. We can, of course, do it through wine books, but except for one or two very recent additions to the genre, 2020 has not really provided a lot of new wine literature to read. I can tell because I’ve been reading a lot more books about music this summer. We can, however, also travel by trying new grape varieties. New varieties, perhaps more than merely new wines, can take us somewhere completely different. Those taste differences, which can often be a shock, even to those of us whose palates crave new flavours, can really connect us with an unfamiliar terroir, wine region, or perhaps even country.

So, after a lengthy introduction I’m going to try to provide a little map which, should you so choose, you can follow to experience some new flavours. With luck, from the comfort of your arm chair or table (or wherever else you like to sip your wine) you might travel in the mind to places which, if and when life ever gets back to normal, you may even wish to visit yourself. In my case this has certainly happened, specifically with the wines of Moravia in the Czech Republic (which I had also hoped to visit this year).

This article does not have the space to take us around the world so I will start in Eastern France and head east, through Germany, Switzerland, NE Italy and Austria, and into Central Europe. There are, of course, wonderful grape varieties to try further west. What life could be lived without Fer Servadou, Sumoll and Hondarrabi Zuri, but another time, perhaps.

No Jura here. When I first visited Arbois I’d hazard a guess that around 5% of the wine trade in England or the US (and 1% in Paris) had tasted Savagnin, Trousseau and Ploussard? I’d also suggest that most of that 1% from Paris would have dismissed them with a patrician sneer. Many still do. But let’s face it, Jura is a contemporary star and if you have never drunk at least one of those varieties you probably would not be reading this article. We need to go a little deeper.

Alsace is different. I don’t mean to suggest Sylvaner/Silvaner, because that has truly come into its own both in France and Germany this past decade. I would, however, suggest that you try Klevener though. That’s Klevener, not Klevner (a different grape entirely). Klevener de Heiligenstein is a speciality of a village of that name in the Bas Rhin (northern) segment of Alsace, just north of Andlau/Mittelbergheim. It’s actually a synonym of Savagnin Rose. It’s not directly related to Jura’s Savagnin, but it is a member of the Traminer family all the same. Less aromatic that Gewürztraminer, it has been tamed by world class producers like Jean-Pierre Rietsch (Mittelbergheim) and others. Obscure rating:10 and a solid start.

Germany is awash with varieties we never knew could make classy wines…because no one ever treated them right. I think for the adventurous Germany can reward those seeking sappy reds combining fruit with, if you are lucky, a bitter twist. Let’s stick with Dornfelder, Trollinger, Lemberger and Frühburgunder.

Dornfelder is a crossing (1955) of two obscure varieties, Helfensteiner and Heroldrebe. It is mostly found in the Ahr Valley, the Pfalz and Rheinhessen, but not exclusively. There are 425 ha planted in the Nahe, but more than four times as much in Rheinhessen and almost ten times as much in the Pfalz (which is quite a lot considering we see little of it on the UK market). I first tasted Dornfelder as a varietal from Lingenfelder (Pfalz) in the 1990s, but it is used to great effect, along with Pinot Noir, in Rudolf and Rita Trossen’s generic “Rot” (Mosel). It also makes Bolney Estate’s “Cuvée Noir” English sparkling red, a wonderfully sappy wine if you want something different.

For Trollinger and Lemberger you really have to hit Württemberg, where there is a true tradition for these varieties. Trollinger is Südtirol’s Schiava, whilst Lemberger is Austria’s Blaufränkisch. The former may generally have the better wines right now but that’s because Lemberger has rarely been taken seriously. If you take a look at the wines of Bianka and Daniel Schmidtt (Rheinhessen) you will discover its untapped potential. Frühburgunder is more difficult to track down in its homeland because it has often been mistaken for Schwarzriesling (Pinot Meunier, aka Müllerrebe, in parts of Germany). It is better known in England as Pinot Noir Précose, but some of you will know I grow a little, and prefer the German name. Look to the Ahr to see some examples where it feels loved.

If a theme is emerging, it is that these once-called “lesser” varieties, abused by the industrials for high yielding plonk, are most often taken seriously by young producers aiming to make gluggable juice, perfect for the modern wine bar scene, often using low intervention methods and reasonably small yields, which can transform the wines into something of personality.

We are seeing this in Switzerland, where wines from big yields made for an older palate are being replaced by lower yields and wines of quality for discerning drinkers, and even (shhhh!) export markets. Suisse Romande has a host of excellent autochthonous varieties, many of which I have written about at length. The majority come from the Valais (Cornalin, Humagne Rouge and Blanc, Amigne and especially the wonderful Petite Arvine, as well as various renditions of Jura’s Savagnin, via Heida and PaÏen). There are many even more obscure varieties. If you want to go totally hors-piste I suggest you look for Plant Robert (Vaud) and, better still, Completer (Graubünden), or a Vin de Glacier made from Rèze, aged in larch barrels in (for example) the Val d’Anniviers, near Sierre. Rèze is perhaps plain odd. Completer makes super wines, though at a price.

My own exploration of Swiss wines is now more focused (if importers will help me here) on the German speaking cantons (Deutschschweiz). There is a real renaissance in the east, aside from the already world class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay of Graubünden. The driving force has once again been the young growers, here via the Junge Schweiz, Neue Winzer organisation (JSNW). The group has developed to cover a wider geography, but its nascence derived from the desire to prove that the German speakers can also make quality wine.

Jauslin (Basel, for Müller-Thurgau and Gutedel), Tom Litwan (Aargau, also for “Riesling-Sylvaner”, the name erroneously given to Müller-Thurgau outside of the Canton of Thurgau, though Pinot is his passion), Urs Pircher (Zurich, for the increasingly rare Raüschling) and Nadine Saxer (also Zurich, who makes three different” Riesling-Sylvaner” bottlings). All of these producers pretty much make a living from Pinot Noir and have fun with the other varieties. Is that not so often the way?

Italy of course presents a number of avenues to pursue, but if we stick to its northern regions, Aosta offers up several gems. Of all the Aostan grapes surely Fumin has to be the one which stands out. Look for Les Crêtes or Cantina di Barró. Rouge du Pays is another mainstay red variety worth trying. White varieties are abundant too, although the region’s top white wine is generally considered a Chardonnay (from Les Crêtes), but this producer makes a Petite Arvine to match anything from Switzerland’s Valais (which is after all just over the St-Bernard Pass to the north). Ottin is another top producer. Aosta is truly worth researching because the only reason its wines are rarely seen outside of the region is that production is tiny – it’s Italy’s smallest wine region.

Northeastern Italy has the aforementioned Schiava, and Lagrein for red varieties. Oddly enough the last Lagrein I drank was from Australia (Vinteloper, Adelaide Hills). A lovely rendition with juice, bite and grip, from a variety which which isn’t always this ripe in Italy, yet shows the variety’s potential.

But South Tirol also shows some lovely renditions of Germanic white varieties, and here I shall single out two, from one producer. The abbey of Neustift/Novacella, founded in the 12th century, is a few kilometres out of Bressanone/Brixen, where ancient routes split north to the Brenner Pass, into Austria, and east up the Isarco Valley. A magnificent place to visit, it is also famous for its wines. The top of the range wines, called “Praepositus”, are exceptional. There’s a Müller-Thurgau that would surprise anyone, but the star (indeed, chosen to appear in “1001 Wines to Drink Before You Die”) is the Praepositus Kerner, harvested up to 930 metres above sea level.

There are some wonderful producers in Alto Adige (Peter Pliger, Tenuta Falkenstein etc) but they focus on varieties such as Riesling. But before we cross into Austria, I must mention Georg Ramoser for Lagrein and Weingut Niklas for Schiava. Though I’ve not drunk these wines for many years, they have provided some delicious bottles.

Austria is obscure grape central, and really deserves an article on its own. Aside from the varieties most of us will know, I’d suggest all of the following white grapes are worth a punt if seen as a varietal wine, or in a blend (often the Gemischter Satz field blends, not just of Vienna). The figure in brackets is the estimated current planting in hectares: Frühroter Veltliner (400); Gelber Muskateller (200) though as “Muscat à Petits Grains it is perhaps hardly obscure, yet Austrian versions are so different; Neuburger (550); Roter Veltliner (200); Rotgipfler (130) and Zierfandler (80).

The latter two are specialities of Gumpoldskirchen (Thermenregion). Despite its proximity to Vienna I’ve never visited, largely because it isn’t well served by public transport, but its wines are worth seeking out. The wines of Johanneshof Reinisch are fairly easy to find in my home country, the UK.

Neuburger has halved its plantings since the 1950s, when it was a high-cropping workhorse, but we are once more seeing a revival brought about by dynamic young producers. The Rainer Wess/Somm in the Must collaboration (Krems) is definitely worth a taste, but I recently drank a Neuburger from Petr Koráb (Czechia), a crown-capped, unfiltered, natural wine. It was rather good. I’m sure Neuburger has an interesting future.

I mentioned Frühroter Veltliner above. What more obscure variety could I suggest? How am I ever going to find this, you ask? Well at one time Modal Wines imported Niburu’s Kamptal cuvée made from this grape. I don’t think they have any right now, but we live in hope.

I wish I had time to journey into Czechia, Slovakia and beyond, because varieties such as Devin and Modry Portugal (to name only two) truly deserve to be tasted by adventurous and open-minded wine lovers. Devin is a Traminer x Roter Veltliner cross originating in Slovakia, whilst Modry Portugal is a clone of Blauer Portugieser which has made a home for itself in Moravia.

I really cannot leave without returning to Austria and admitting my secret shame. There is a grape variety which, as an inveterate acid hound, I adore. It’s (you may have guessed) a speciality of Weststeiermark, and goes into the regional Schilcher. It is, of course, Blauer Wildbacher, of which Austria only has around 400 ha remaining. Schilcher is traditionally a dry Rosé with searing acids and a lethal concentration of dark black fruit.

However, Blauer Wildbacher is so much better rendered in sparkling form, and increasingly producers are coming around to this idea. I never leave Austria without a bottle of Schilcher Sekt, but the best version in my opinion is a “frizzante”, made by Franz and Christine Strohmeier. It has a passing resemblance to Belgian Kriek beer in a funny sort of way and rocks out at just 10.5% abv. It’s also occasionally available in the UK (Newcomer Wines).

I’d better not mention Uhudler though, because not only is that made from a vitis labrusca grape variety, Isabella, it would also definitely be one for the polar explorer among us, but if you want to experience that “foxy” aroma…

A little journey like this can be nothing more than superficial, a tiny snapshot and I hope mildly entertaining. You know, like those coach tours of Europe which an Australian family member bravely took a couple of years ago. Several cities in a day and hardly more than a night in each country – in fact it was twelve countries in twenty-four days to be accurate. It might just give a flavour, though, enough to inspire some deeper practical research. If you think you know wine surely it is worth knowing what’s at the fringes as well as what is at the epicentre. The heart and soul of a country’s wine encompasses both. And I can promise you an adventure, not least because I have only scratched the surface here. Or you could, alternatively, just read the same page of that wine book over and over again.

Oh, what about Chasselas, Furmint, Zweigelt, you ask? Well varieties like these are pretty mainstream now, aren’t they? If not, search my site. There’s a whole article on Chasselas/Gutedel posted in August, and likewise on Blaufränkisch/Kékfrankos. If you got to the end of this article, you might enjoy them. And then there’s Greece…

About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
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