In which camp do you take up permanent and loyal residence? Do you listen to, build your cellar around and taste exclusively of the singer-songwriter, the solo artist, the grape that goes it alone? Who are you? Varietal or blend?
Many a quarrel has landed on the subject of pitting meritage versus the single-varietal. The purist will argue that no combination of grapes can combine to make for the greatest of wines (save for Champagne). They will insist the skilled and important winemaker is one whose favourite medium is difficulty. That only the ones who are possessive of the cabalistic code can truly unlock the inner secrets of their art. That it can only done through the secret concentration and religious attention paid solely to one partner.
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay perpetuate in globally made, 100 per cent single solutions, not to mention the behemoths of Shiraz, Malbec, Tempranillo, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. To a lesser extent there are great vats composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Gamay, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer.
The viticultural right of assemblage is one of the perks in modern winemaking, propped up by and standing on the shoulders of Bordeaux giants. The blending of grapes in summations to argue that the whole is the proper gross of fractions is a celebration of the 21st century avant garde.
Related – Off the beaten Italian path
Yet times evolve, change and tesselate. Old becomes new again. In November I travelled off the beaten Italian varietal path in an investigation of the B-sides, the ones that no one else knows about. I met the awakening of the Italian grape vernacular, engineered for companionless a cappella troubadours, from Albana to Ribolla Gialla, endemic (or indigenous, if the nomenclature suits you) and ancient varieties that have entered a time of new dawn. A similar renaissance is happening in Spain.
In October, at the invite of the downright honourable good Dr. Barry Brown of the Spanish Wine Society, I had the opportunity to taste through a wide selection of the wines of Navarra. The region lies between Pamplona in the north and the Ebro River plain to the south. Non-native varieties like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were introduced in the eighties, but it is the native Viura, Tempranillo and Garnacha that drive the Navarran machine.
The Rosado of Navarra were exceptional and the best examples were composed from 100 per cent Garnacha. The single-varietal compositions in Garnacha and Tempranillo by Bodegas Principe de Viana drove the companionless point. The exception to the rule was found in the wines of Bodegas Tandem. The small winery in Tierra Estella (Yerri Valley) is fashioning blends using Tempranillo with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in a combination of concrete vats and French oak. The slow ripening, meticulous handling and extended aging in wines crafted by José María Fraile is nothing short of exceptional. After all, they are called grape varieties and variety is the spice of life. Why shouldn’t blends have more fun?
In November I continued my Spanish odyssey with the wines of Garnacha. It was there that the solo records, in red and white really began to play in my varietal head. Garnacha (also known as Grenache) is one of the world’s oldest and most widely planted grapes. Its ability to assimilate the double-pronged effect of a Mediterranean climate and an Atlantic suffusion make it ideal for the Iberian Peninsula.
As the most notorious grape variety with the ability to go ying or yang, Ac or Dc, red or white, Garnacha makes for a fascinating study. Three examples expressive of Blanca’s western European white vinous supremacy opened my eyes to its capabilities. Viñas del Vero La Miranda de Secastilla 2012 (Agent, $16.00) from Somontano made use of four months in two year-old oak barrels to help develop texture in as good a value Garnacha Blanca as could hope to find. The Lafou Els Amelers 2013 (Agent, $28.95) from Terra Alta is a gorgeous wine of salinity, calcium, white flowers, fine lines and elegance. The Edetària Selecció Blanc 2012 (Agent, $39.95) also from Terra Alta is the pure distilled embodiment of Garnacha Blanca with its own unique and distinct aroma.
The Toronto Garnacha tasting ushered by Sopexa Canada brought into focus the grape’s diverse spectrum spread liberally around Spanish wine regions. When Garnacha goes it alone the results are extremely varied, from simple syrup, inexpensive drops to seriously structured compositions. As a varietal wine it is extremely accessible and offers exploratory song lines for all walks of wine consumer life.
From Somontano there is the Bodegas Pirineos Garnacha 2013 (Agent, $17.00), a prime starter’s example all about structure, with rock, chalk and lime-like citrus accents. This is a red Garnacha for the white wine drinker. Grandes Vinos y Viñedos El Anayón Selección Garnacha 2011 (Agent, $30.00) hails from Cariñena. Reeking ethereal and attenuated in American Oak, the high toast, citrus tone, vanilla and Rhône-esque garrigue is palpable. Crazy sweet tannins will carry this big fruit Garnacha to the next decade with pleasing clarity.
So with thanks to Macabeo, Prieto Picudo, Mazuelo, Graciano, Garnacha and the people who brought them to us, the individual is freed from the collective. In a twist of Descartian philosophy, of mind and mechanism, varietal wine is handled with the treatment of oxymoronic social sciences. The result is a triumph of secular materialism, the conceit of modernity and the reduction of the world to a single, simple mechanism. Varietal atom splitting is a resource to be exploited in blind interaction with the living planet.
In the end there is only one vine, one grape, concentrating, developing, existing one at a time. Here are six full tasting notes on varietal wines, each allowed to shine without intrusion and on their own line.
Torre Oria Reserva Brut Cava, Método Tradicional, Do Valencia, Spain (402255, $15.95, WineAlign)
Made from 100 per cent Macabeo, this is from a winery that is the first to produce Cava from outside of the Penedes DO. Here, from Valencia, up front there is dust, must and concrete, evidence of a lees-induced oxdative lean and wish upon a star aridity. There comes a time when dry fizz does not have to be the way to go, especially when trying to please many palates in too tight a space. So up steps this formidable Cava (with 9-10 g/L RS), in quality, with a crush of gala apple, a weight and a texture like a shag rug. Sure, it may be a bit disco but it’s also so very retro hip. Like Gorillaz and Clint Eastwood with “the essence, the basics,” and its “got sunshine, in a bag.” On the oxidative side? Yes and “the future is coming on.” Drink up. Tasted January 2015 @cavaswine @DO_Cava
Dominio Dostares Estay Prieto Picudo 2011, Vino De La Tierra De Castilla Y León, Spain (393140, $15.95, WineAlign)
A rare sighting of Prieto Picudo, one of the more idiosyncratic of grape varieties. This is the entry-level offering from Dominio Dostares (they make more precious best plot selection versions). Vines as ancient as 90 years old contribute briery cedar and leathery veins but this is quite modern, straightforward and aiming to please. Though a bit hot and heavy, the aridity (2 g/L RS) and the mineral streak keep it real. A harmonious if gangly red (from high acid soils), keeping warm and huddled within its hermetic, endemic environment. Short and simple, sweet and tart. Represents striking value in something other. Tasted January 2015 @oenophilia1 @_Cast_y_Leon
Señorío De Sarría Viñedo No.8 Mazuelo Crianza 2009, Do Navarra, Spain (391656, $17.95, WineAlign)
Finca Los Alijares Graciano 2009, Vino De La Tierra De Castilla, DO La Mancha, Spain (392522, $17.95, WineAlign)
Not unlike Rioja, the wines of Tierra De Castilla in the heart of Spain are blessed with a Mediterranean climate augmented by an Atlantic influence. This organic winery is located beneath the Gredos Mountains in the Province of Toledo. The vineyards are protected from the northern winds by the mountain ranges. Though oft considered lower in quality, the Vino de la Tierra de Castilla designation is emerging from out of the Castilla-La Mancha shell. Tasting this 100 per cent Graciano just after a few months in oak and a bunch more in bottle before release would have shown more bright fruit and verve. Now four plus years later there is still much to admire in the high notes and brightness of the nose. Hard not to notice the strikingly and hauntingly beautiful aromatics. Also some dried fruit, like prune and turkish apricot. Akin to some Dão and some Rhône, without ever flirting with being baked or stewed flavours. Aridty juiced from rocks, acidity that follows suit and to nudge it forward in longer strides. Tasted January 2015
Baron De Ley Varietales Graciano 2010, Doca Rioja, Spain (397166, $21.95, WineAlign)
Such a unique and life reaffirming, giving back red Riojan. The singular, singled out Graciano comeback revolution is upon us and we are all the beneficiaries. Here there exhibits a different sort of profile. A veritable profiterole of anise, cured chorizo, dried flowers and some spices (violets and the wafting aromas of Patatas a la Riojana). Not to be left off the redolent list is a funk, one that is not merde, but rather an old school, skinned hide. At the price and best of all is that the Graciano is so very, very long, like the Camino Frances, from the Pyrenees, through Roncesvalles and to Rioja. Tasted January 2015 @RiojaWine
Viñas del Vero Secastilla 2009, DO Somontano, Spain (Agent, $32.00)
Took a sip and “the breeze blew back my hair.” Made from 100 per cent Garnacha, the elevated liqueur on the nose is invigorating and initially, somehow disturbing. The combined forces of macerated, steeping cherries, melting liquorice and bubbling tar is extraordinary. Enveloped by a tinging, pinging acidity, the wine is structured in chalk, grain and gravelly tannin. The barrel influence is ingrained and the wine is most certainly huge but the overall composition is fresh, red and viscid. What to do after being hit in the face with a wine such as this? “How can I measure up to anyone new, after such a love as this?” Who are you Secastilla? Be patient, let it ride for years, let it soften. The comeback tour will be fun. Tasted November 2014 @VinasdelVero @WoodmanWS
Good to go!