Raisins d'être

Wine Grapes co-authors, Julia Harding MW and Dr José Vouillamoz, champion five lesser-known grape varieties from the book – and the winemakers that are using them to notable effect.
Raisins d'être

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Arvine: Switzerland’s hidden treasure

Berry colour: white

Arvine, pearl of the Alps

The ultimate Swiss grape variety, Arvine can produce captivating, complex wines of international stature, from dry to sweet. It is native to the Valais, southern Switzerland, where it was mentioned for the first time in 1602. Since the late 19th century, it has often been called Petite Arvine to distinguish it from Grosse Arvine, a completely different and rare local variety. I have not so far been able to uncover Arvine’s parents by DNA testing.

It is often said that Arvine was introduced to Switzerland by the Romans. Its name allegedly derived from helvola, a grape variety mentioned by Cato the Elder. I refute this claim for two very simple reasons: firstly, it is impossible to establish botanical identity between the vague descriptions of Latin authors and modern varieties, and secondly, helvola grapes were black-berried. I think instead that its name comes from the local dialect arvena, itself probably derived from the Latin advena, meaning ‘just arrived’. This name could have been given to the variety shortly after its birth (or arrival?) in the Valais.

It is a late-ripening variety, with small berries and compact, small bunches. It is quite productive, but prone to wind damage and susceptible to fungal diseases. Arvine covers 218 hectares (539 acres), almost exclusively in the Valais, representing only 1.48% of the country’s vine-bearing area. It produces complex, lively wines that can age well, with aromas of citrus and rhubarb, and a firm structure, as well as a characteristic salinity on the finish.

Champions of Arvine

In the Valais, several outstanding producers make excellent varietal Arvine wines. For dry wines, I would recommend Cave Benoît Dorsaz in Fully, Valentina Andrei in Saillon, Didier Joris in Chamoson, Cave de l’Orpailleur in Uvrier and Domaine des Muses in Granges, among many others. For the sweet wines, produced from grapes that are naturally left to shrivel on the vine, the undisputed champion is Marie-Thérèse Chappaz in Fully. From her biodynamic vineyards, this icon of Swiss winegrowers crafts some of the best sweet wines in the world, especially from Arvine. Her Petite Arvine Grain Noble is highly sought after, and her otherworldly Arvine Grain par Grain, made exclusively from botrytised berries harvested by hand, berry by berry, is almost impossible to find.

Arvine has rarely been planted outside Switzerland. In Italy, it was introduced to the neighbouring Aosta Valley in 1970. In 1992, Angelo Gaja, one of Italy’s most famous wine producers, planted 0.36 hectares in Serralunga (Piedmonte). The result was a disaster, in his words, mainly because of problems with coulure and wind damage. In France, some vine parcels exist in the Languedoc and in the Rhône Valley, where charismatic winemaker Michel Chapoutier planted half a hectare in Tain-l’Hermitage, but he was not convinced by the results and has now abandoned the experiment. Outside Europe, it is produced only in Mendocino, California, by one adventurous producer, Ernest Vineyards, which makes a varietal wine under the Edaphos label. Dr José Vouillamoz

Areni: Armenia’s national treasure

Berry colour: BLACK

History in a bottle

Areni is the most important red variety in Armenia. It most likely comes from the village of Areni in Vayots Dzor, at the southeastern end of the county, where the world’s oldest cellar (4000 BC) was discovered in a cave in 2011. Interestingly, the grape remains found at the bottom of the old karas (the traditional clay jars) buried in the cave look very similar to the pips of the modern Areni variety.

DNA profiling has failed to identify Areni’s parents, making it an orphan Armenian variety, but it has shown that at least two distinct varieties share the name Areni: Areni Sev (sev means black), the ‘true’ one that has historically been grown in Vayots Dzor, and Areni Seyrak (seyrak means loose, referring to the bunches), sporadically found among Areni Sev vines in old mixed vineyards.

Areni Sev is a late-ripening variety with oblong, sometimes ovate, thick-skinned berries. The bunches are medium-sized and dense. It shows good resistance to frost, which means it can be cultivated at high elevations (up to 1,600 metres in Armenia). It is moderately resistant to powdery mildew and susceptible to downy mildew. Areni is exclusively cultivated in Armenia, where it has traditionally been used to make high-quality, age-worthy wines with complex aromas of violets, wisteria, cherries and blackberries, silky tannins and refreshing acidity.

Champions of Areni

After my first visit to Areni village in 2003, and despite the rudimentary winemaking at the only local winery (Areni Winery, now Hin Winery), I was convinced that Areni was among the most promising grape varieties in the world. In 2012, I met Zorik Gharibian in Izmir (Turkey) at the European Wine Bloggers’ Conference. I was much impressed by his 2010 Karasi Areni Noir, Zorah Wines’ very first vintage after 10 years of trial and error. We became friends and I selfishly helped him find an importer in Switzerland, in order to secure my own supply of his wines, including the mind-blowing high-end cuvée Yeraz. Since then, Zorik and his wife Yeraz have relentlessly promoted Armenian wines all over the world, and Zorah Wines has become one of Armenia’s most respected flagships. Their wines, sourced from ungrafted vineyards between 1,300 and 1,600 metres altitude are partly made in karas, traditional clay jars partly buried underground, ‘cousins’ of the Georgian qvevri. The sad thing is that Armenian-born Eduardo Eurnekian, one of the wealthiest people in Argentina and owner of several airports, including that of Yerevan in Armenia, has founded a winery named Karas Wines, despite not using any karas in the winemaking process. In 2018, judges granted him the exclusive usage of the name Karas, disregarding 6,000 years of shared tradition. Zorik Gharibian has been determinedly fighting against this unfair judgement and he plans to appeal to the country’s Supreme Court. I strongly support him. And I predict that Armenia may well be the ‘next big thing’ in the wine world.

Dr José Vouillamoz

Raisins d être 1

Kydonitsa: Rebirth of an extremely rare grape variety

Berry colour: WHITE

Rescued in the nick of time

Kydonitsa is a survivor, an almost forgotten variety from Lakonía (Laconia) in the southern Pelopónnisos (Peloponnese) in Greece. According to local belief, it was widely cultivated in the medieval period when Lakonía formed part of the Byzantine Empire. It then flourished under brief periods of Venetian rule, before it was threatened with extinction under Ottoman rule, as a result of the bans on alcohol consumption. It had almost disappeared when it was saved from extinction by Yiannis Vatistas and Yorgos Tsimbidi (Monemvasia Winery) in the late 1990s.

DNA profiling has not revealed any match or parentage with any other variety, making it a Greek orphan. The medium-sized bunches are relatively loose and elongated. The berries are small and turn golden yellow when ripe. In Greek, the word kυδωνίτσα (kydonitsa) means ‘little quince’, referring to the aroma of both the berry and the wine. The wine also shows notes of lemon, grapefruit, bergamot and mirabelle plum, as well as aromatic herbs. It is elegant, creamy, with crisp acidity and a slightly bitter, orange-peel finish, with a hint of iodine. Kydonitsa is grown exclusively in Lakonía, on the east coast of the Pelopónnisos, near the island of Monemvasia.

Champions of Kydonitsa

Yorgos Tsimbidi is a visionary. In 1997, while most wineries in the Pelopónnisos were busy planting so-called international grape varieties, he founded Monemvasia Winery in order to revive the historical Malvasia wine in its birthplace. The name Malvasia has been given to a wide range of genetically distinct white-, pink-, grey- and black-skinned varieties which are all particularly well suited to the production of sweet wines. The name is purported to be a corruption of Monemvasia, which means ‘single entrance’ and is the name of a small port situated on a rocky spur in Lakonía. It has been famous since ancient times for its sweet wine made from sun-dried grapes. The earliest mention of the sweet wines of Monemvasia dates back to 1214 in Éfesos (Ephesus, today in Turkey), and in 1278 the Venetians were already importing vinum de Malvasias. The exact identities of the grape varieties making up this sweet wine are still unknown, but Kydonitsa and the appropriately named Monemvasia were probably part of the blend. This is what drove Yorgos Tsimbidi to put all his time and energy into rescuing them, carrying out countless on-farm trials since 1997. He now produces dry varietal wines, as well as the sweet ‘Monemvasia – Malvasia’, a blend of Monemvasia, Kydonitsa, Assyrtiko and Asproudi grapes, dried for approximately two weeks under the sun, in order to revive the ancient tradition.

Today, Yorgos runs the winery with his wife Elli and their daughters Marialena, Anastasia and Artemis. I was able to taste a mini-vertical of Kydonitsa during my visit in 2016, which convinced me of the exceptional quality and ageing potential of this resurrected variety. And the rest of the portfolio convinced me that Monemvasia Winery is one of the best in mainland Greece.

Dr José Vouillamoz

Baga: Northern Portuguese red with a simple name and a complex character

Berry colour: black

The rehabilitation of Baga

The meaning of Baga may be simple (berry) but the variety is far from it. When it is good, it is breathtakingly beautiful and capable of long ageing. When it is abused, it is acid, mean and lean, with tough tannins. It requires commitment from growers and wine lovers. While it may have originated in Portugal's Dão region, it has found its home in neighbouring Bairrada, where it is the dominant red variety. In 2017 there were 8,258 hectares (20,406 acres), 4% of Portugal’s vineyard area. It’s found mainly in Bairrada but also in Dão, although there it is not authorised in DOP wines. Baga vines are also planted, though far less numerously, in Lisboa, the Tejo and the Douro. The cool, wet, Atlantic-influenced climate of Bairrada is particularly inconvenient for a late-ripening variety with thin skins and prone to botrytis. If its vigour and productivity are not controlled by careful viticulture or the natural balance achieved by older vines in poor soils, there is increased risk of under-ripeness or rot when the September rains arrive. Despite all this, those whose hearts have been captured by the variety have shown it to be as bewitching as Pinot Noir, and as hauntingly complex and long-lived as Nebbiolo.

Champions of Baga

The variety allows itself to be made in many styles, influenced strongly by the soil (limestone-clay and granite are both prized), the age of the vines and, not least, by the personalities of the winegrowers and their choices in the winery. The most restlessly experimental and determined is Luís Pato, who was prominent among a small group of quality-minded winegrowers who dragged Baga into the spotlight for fine wine after it had languished for so long as a source of bulk reds churned out by the state-controlled co-ops and négociants for much of the 20th century. While there are today, thankfully, too many good winegrowers to mention by name, the Baga Friends display the variety’s wonderful diversity: from the powerful styles aged in oak that become increasingly complex and perfumed with age that are produced by, for example, Luís Pato, Mário Sérgio Alves Nuno at Quinta das Bageiras, François Chasans at Quinta da Vacariça and Paulo Sousa at Sidónio de Sousa; to the lightly stepping, red-fruited, fresh and scented beauties of Filipa Pato and Douro incomer Dirk Niepoort at Quinta de Baixo. Baga can also make very good sparkling wines. Bussaco Palace Hotel has an astonishing collection of very old vintages, blending Baga from Bairrada with Touriga Nacional from Dão.

Julia Harding MW

Kisi: Recently resurrected and scented Georgian white

Berry colour: WHITE

The resurrection of Kisi

Maybe it’s because thin-skinned Kisi is difficult to grow and sensitive to the climate that it was on the verge of extinction at the end of the 20th century, when David Maisuradze made a wine that put the variety firmly back in the spotlight. The highly respected winemaker, then with Telavi Wine Cellar, managed to find just four tonnes of the variety to make a wine, fermented in a stainless-steel tank, that stunned wine lovers with its pure, floral aromas and deep fruit flavours of citrus and pear, richly fruited but dry.

This variety didn’t stand much chance in the Soviet era when only a very limited number of varieties were permitted in the interests of volume rather than quality. Kisi was not among them and it survived in family vineyards in just three villages in its homeland of Kakheti, in the Alazani Valley in eastern Georgia in the shadow of the Caucasus Mountains: mainly in Maghraani but also in Argokhi and Pichkhovani. There are currently about 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of Kisi in Georgia, all still in this region. There is currently no DNA evidence to reveal the variety’s parentage but it is not related to Mtsvane Kakhuri or Rkatsiteli, the latter a Soviet favourite.

Champions of Kisi

In Georgia, ‘classic’ white wines are made in a way familiar to most 21st-century wine drinkers – fermented without the skins, typically in temperature-controlled tanks, occasionally fermented or aged in oak. By contrast, so-called qvevri white wines, sometimes referred to as amber wines because of their typically deep colour, are those vinified in traditional Georgian qvevri, large clay vessels ranging from 700 to 2,000 litres, buried underground so that just the opening is visible. The lightly crushed whole berries, including the skins and seeds, and sometimes even the stems, are fermented together in a qvevri, thus producing a wine with firm, even chewy, tannic texture and a wonderful panoply of flavours derived both from the variety and the winemaking, often ranging from apricots to chamomile. Soon after the appearance of Maisuradze’s revelatory wine, Gogi Dakishvili, a master of these qvevri wines, was able to buy a small amount of Kisi and make a wine in this second style. The cat was out of the bag and growers, including Dakishvili, started to replant when they saw the potential.

Kisi made under both the Dakishvili Family and the Orgo labels reveal all the textural and aromatic complexity of scented varieties made in this way. They are utterly pure, full-bodied wines with intense aromas and flavours that have sufficient structure to be very versatile with food. Qvevri winemaking was recognised as a UNESCO intangible heritage in 2013. While this is the style I particularly enjoy, for anyone who is not a fan of amber wines, there are fine examples that reveal even more of Kisi’s aromatic potential and deep but fresh fruit intensity. These include those from Winiveria and Khareba, and a particularly good off-dry style from Koncho & Co. One of the finest, in this case with light oak influence, is made by Danieli Winery, from vines near Argokhi, one of the three villages which were key to Kisi’s renaissance.

Julia Harding MW

This article was originally published in FONDATA, Issue One. 

Illustration by Sarah Jane Humphrey.


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