It's that time of year again. Time for the (mostly) northern parts of our country to shake off the lingering effects of winter and renew themselves in the refreshing effects of spring. It’s all about flowers, sunshine, warmer days and baseball.
In my youth – which seems to be more in the wrong direction with every passing season, “caution, objects in the rear-view mirror are further behind you than they appear” – the advent of baseball’s spring training season staged throughout Florida and Arizona were sure signs that winter was about to become a memory.
Baseball is now not so much in my life since playing is a wish and viewing is a tedious chore, except in short spurts.
But in baseball parlance, the term “on deck” refers to the next batter, preparing both to defend home plate and to try and return to the base with the purpose of scoring, after a trip around the horn. It’s such a warm sounding name, home plate.
Anyway, that player awaiting his time in the limelight, at the moment not really in the game, is always a consideration for the team on defense because looking ahead is often a clue as to how to play the present circumstance. Baseball is as much a game about strategy as it is about athletic talent. Many a small man has become a large baseball hero because he knew where to position himself and when to swing away, when to bunt or when to take a pitch.
There is an analogy here to wine. Certain parts of the world are renowned for turning out some pretty special juice of a particular type thanks to soil, climate, vine stock, etc. But when you can grow one varietal and vinify it in a memorable way, you are likely able to do the same with other grape varietals.
It’s that “other” varietal we are focused on, and here are a few of those just-about-as-memorable-as-the-stuff-we-are-famous-for wines:
Chile – Cabernet Sauvignon
Carménère has been very, very good to Chile. Not only has this completely secondary, almost forgotten grape from the Bordeaux region of France flourished in Chile, it has moved to the forefront of putting Chile on the word’s wine map, with not the least attractive aspect of any bottling, a reasonable, often cheap, price.
You can’t argue with a fine red wine for under $16 a bottle. Who cares if the grape is one you never heard of until ten years ago?
Along those lines comes Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. In some cases, pricing is about the same, or just a little higher, than the Carménère, and the flavors are not too far removed from each other, but they are different, with Carménère playing the role of Merlot, soft, silky, velvet, and the Cabernet Sauvignon providing the traditional bold, tannic and strong characteristics.
Germany – Pinot Noir
Sure, go ahead and look at the heading twice. It seems incongruous that a place renowned for muscular white wines would also turn out some pretty darn good and elegant reds. Gender-bender is an apt description for what is going on here.
Pinot Noir in Germany is known as Spätburgunder, literally meaning “Late Burgundian.” Given Germany’s penchant for great white wines, they can be forgiven if some of these wines are sweeter, softer, without the acidic definition that is Pinot Noir in France, California, Oregon or New Zealand. But around the Baden and Ahr regions some very successful vinification work is being accomplished.
Today in Germany, ripening, avoidance of bunch-rot and new techniques in canopy management are all involved in happy results.
Napa – Cabernet Franc
Napa’s reputation for growing just about anything and doing it well, is really rooted (sorry, could not resist) in the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. Yet, Cabernet Franc, successfully used in the long-lived wines of Bordeaux and reaching its zenith of character a little further north, in the Loire Valley, western France, is making a stand on American soil.
A bit of a Johnny-come-lately to this brawny, sunshine-laden valley in California named Napa, there is truly excellent work being done with the lighter, more delicate Cabernet Franc. It’s a world gone mad, I tell you.
Honestly, after tasting some Cabernet Franc from Napa about eight years ago, I thought this grape was primed to make bigger leaps into the waiting arms of the wine-buying public than it has. Progress has been slow and, I guess, more due to Napa’s grand reputation for producing world-class Cabernet Sauvignon rather than to anything wrong Cabernet Franc is doing or not doing.
It may be time to put down those heavily concentrated, big alcohol, highly tannic wines from Napa and give this “newcomer,” Cabernet Franc, a chance. You can even safely bring just a bit of a chill to the wine and not lose any of the nuances. Perfect for our summertime experiences.
Portugal – Red Wine
What’s going on in Portugal is actually more a matter of style and process rather than a different grape.
The Touriga Nacional and Touriga Francesa are two red grape varietals widely used in the production of Portugal’s signature product, Port. And they, along with Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, and Bastardo are making wine lovers in Europe sit up, take notice, and drink traditionally fermented still wines with “new” flavors.
Portugal makes a number of wines from many native red grape varietals. Many of these grapes are not familiar to us because they are grown only in Portugal, with maybe a few being grown in Brazil because of the cultural connection.
The Portuguese also do the same thing with white varietals, which are usually marked vinho verde, but, to me, the red wines are more interesting, unique and better priced. Also while Portuguese is close to Spanish, there are significant differences, and those are also confusing to the consumer.
The great white grape of Northwest Spain in the Rias Baixas area, just due north of Portugal, is albariño. In Portugal, that same grape is the alvarinho.
Ironically, many of us cut our wine-teeth on red still wines from Portugal but have no idea. Back in the '70s, Lancers Rosè and Mateus ruled the world. They were sweet and came in bottles begging for a candle when emptied. There was likely not a college dorm room in America without one of these standard accessories.
So, there you have it. There are more such examples of wines that have a bad press agent and can’t create the excitement of certain varietals from specific places. What you should do, being the curious wine drinker you are, is continue to enjoy what you like from the places you know. Then, from time to time, see what other wines are coming from a region with which you are familiar. Who knows where that will lead? Be the first on your block to sing the praises of Slovenian Pinot Noir. Amaze your friends.