IMMIGRANT VARIETALS IN THEIR ADOPTED LANDS
The history of winemaking can be traced back to 7000 BC in China where vessels have been found that contained a fermented grape concoction, and evidence of wine in a more current form has been found in Georgia from 6000 BC and Georgians are still employing the same winemaking culture using underground qvevri to ferment the grapes and age the wine. The earliest anthropological evidence of an actual winery is 4100 BC in Armenia, and in terms of trade, the Phoenicians were instrumental in spreading wine, winemaking technology, and even Vitis vinifera vines and grapes. Phoenicia had already benefited from the spread of Vitus vinifera to its own terroir and gained the knowledge of how it was fermented and turned into palatable wine, and from there the Phoenicians, having one of the most advanced civilizations during their heyday as a maritime trading hegemon on the Mediterranean Sea, improved upon and spread winemaking knowhow. From there, it became a matter of where Vitus vinifera grew best among their trading partners, which turned out to be what is now considered Western Europe.
As we have discussed in our January Amaro Spirits & Wine Club, Vitus vinifera grows best within a latitudinal “wine belt” at roughly 30 degrees latitude to 50 degrees latitude, both north and south of the equator, which leads us to our theme of immigrant varietals. Although grapes grew in Phoenicia, which is now what we call the Middle East, this area is at the cusp of the wine belt. Western Europe was well within the heart of the belt, and once the Romans created a civilization matching and eventually exceeding that of the Phoenicians in terms of scale, Europe became the center of winemaking for thousands of years, and when Europeans pushed out of their native continent as explorers, settlers, and conquerors, they brought their grapes with them. If the new places fit into either the north and south of the equator wine belts, their immigrant Vitus vinifera vines grew, thrived, and took on unique personalities.
CHENIN BLANC IN SOUTH AFRICA
Chenin Blanc is a staple varietal of the Loire Valley in France. It buds early and ripens late giving it lots of variability in its chemical composition, and it is known for bestowing wines high, mouthwatering acidity. Winemakers have learned how to turn the grapes variability to their advantage, allowing “noble rot” during wet seasons, for example, in which the grape is picked after beginning to decay to produce uniquely hearty and sweet wines, or using the grape young to make sparkling wine. As such, renowned appellations in France feature Chenin Blanc, such as Saumur, Quarts de Chaume, Vouvray, Anjou, and Crémant de Loire.
The non-winemaking Dutch were enamored enough with the varietal for Governor Jan van Riebeeck to bring it along with him in 1655 to a Dutch colony in what is now South Africa. Given South Africa’s location within the southern latitudinal wine belt, the varietal thrived. Through a series of linguistical acrobatics it became known as Steen and thrived so well that it became a workhorse for large production and eventually predominantly used to fill the stills to make brandy, although the local European descendants certainly drank a fair share of it in wine form, also. However, it took until the late 20th century before it was taken seriously as a wine, and it was about this time that oenologists realized that what the South Africans were calling Steen over the centuries was good old Chenin Blanc. In South Africa, the grape tends to get more sun and can last through its long growing season resulting in a dry, but juicy tropical fruitiness. But some producers like to also age it in oak to induce malolactic fermentation and age it on the lees to extract brioche, toast, and nutty notes.
The Myburgh family; the two boys would grow up to bring winemaking back to the estate.
Featured October Amaro Wine Club Chenin Blanc in South Africa wine: Joostenberg Paarl Chenin Blanc Die Agteros (2020)
Joostenberg is a 5th generation family business in the Western Cape, South Africa in the Paarl appellation. Note the word “business” in lieu of winery; this is because from the 1800s to 1947 they produced wine along with a myriad other agricultural products and related ventures, and actually halted their winemaking activity at one point to concentrate on their other ventures. Although they continue to be a multifaceted farming estate, in 1999, two bothers of the fifth generation of the Myburgh family who had taken over the estate in 1879, decided to start making wine again at the estate after a 52-year hiatus during which they were selling their grapes to a local cooperative. The brothers Tyrrel and Philip decided to specialize in making wines from two varietals on their land, Chenin Blanc and Syrah (Shiraz), and to practice environmental accountability through organic farming, achieving full official organic certification in 2012. They have been so successful in their venture that they have even found an international following for their wine. They use the younger workhorse vines to get the volume and dedicate thoughtful farming and winemaking skill to the oldest vines on the property to produce nuanced wines.
The Die Agteros is an example of the latter. “Die agteros” is translated from the Afrikaans language to “hind ox” in English. When oxen were used as draft animals, the youngest, least experienced ox was positioned at the rear of the team. As he became stronger and more skilled he worked his way to the front, hence the Afrikaans saying “agteros kom ook in die kraal”, meaning “the hind ox gets there eventually”. These grapes come from the oldest vineyard on the farm, planted in 1982.
FOOD PAIRINGS: Southeast Asian cuisine, pork chops, turkey dinner.
PAÍS IN CHILE
The País varietal in Chile, like Chenin Blanc varietal, also has a long history as an immigrant, in fact more than 100 years longer than Chenin Blanc in South Africa. It is believed to have been brought over by Spanish Catholic priest missionaries traveling with the conquistadors in 1520. Its immigration status is so old that nobody even calls it by its original name, the Listán Prieto, which is native to the Castilla-La Mancha region in Spain. In fact, it disappeared from the Spanish mainland when the phylloxera epidemic ravaged through Europe, and the nearest place to its native birthplace that it grows is the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa to which the Spanish also brought the varietal and which phylloxera did not reach.
Under the name País and Mission, it has been the most planted grape in Chile until only recently being overtaken in acreage by Cabernet Sauvignon. And it has been so long removed from its native land that Vitis International Variety Catalogue characterizes it as a separate grape varietal due to genetic differences to Listán Prieto, most likely caused from Spanish missionaries planting the grape from seeds rather than planting cuttings. The native pollination involved with seed planting produced vines that eventually developed differently than the Spanish parent vines. País is essentially a workhorse varietal because it tolerates heat and drought in even early stages of growth, and can produce large, hardy crops. When produced in volume, the grapes are big and juicy, resulting in wines without much taste profile, which is why Cabernet Sauvignon has made a persistent encroachment on País territory as wine became a luxury item for export. But along with advanced winemaking came more knowhow regarding how to pull the best out of a varietal. In the case of País it turns out that leaving the old vines alone to do their thing, in lieu of over-farming and tending young vines for volume, results in small bunches of grapes that produce lighter more refined wines.
The Bouchon Family
Featured October Amaro Wine Club País in Chile wine: J. Bouchon País Salvaje (2021)
We couldn’t be prouder of the wine that we found to express the País varietal because of uniquely expressive of its climate and terrain it is. The vines that produce the grapes for this wine are NOT farmed. They grow wild in the trees next to the Bouchon family estate’s traditional vineyards in Maule Valley. The Bouchon family began its Chilean winemaking in the late 19th century in Colchagua Valley before Julio, the grandson of the founder Emile, went to Bordeaux to study winemaking and returned with a decision to acquire land in the dry climate and granite soils of Maule Valley to find different expressions for his vines that included Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Carignan, País, Garnacha, and Mourvèdre.
The vines for the Salvaje wine grow in the woods on the outskirts of the traditional vineyards.
Hence, this Salvaje project is simply a continuation of the family’s penchant for experimentation, especially given that País comprises only two percent of the estate’s varietal plantings. These wild vines are not treated or tended to, the soil is not treated with fertilization agents, and the vines are not even watered. Naturally, they are hand-harvested and then destemmed with a century-old winemaking technique using a zaranda (a structure made of sticks) and then the whole grape clusters are kept intact to ferment first naturally by carbonic maceration and then further with natural yeast and left unfiltered to age in cement. No oak is used so what we are getting is the wine’s authentic expression of terroir in all its glory.
FOOD PAIRINGS: lentil stew with tomatoes, white beans, burgers, red bean vegetarian pâté
The País grapes are literally hand-harvested in the woods where their vines grow wild.
MALBEC IN ARGENTINA
The Malbec varietal is decidedly a native of France. Also known as Côt, there are many theories as to where exactly in France the varietal hails. Some historians place its birthplace in Burgundy, which ironically is where it does not feature in the least bit being eclipsed by Pinot Noir. However, most will tell you that it originated in Bordeaux where it was a staple blending grape for centuries alongside Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. It became less used after 75 percent of its vineyards died in a frost in 1956; since it was a minor component in Bordeaux blends, farmers did not deem the varietal worthy of replanting. It still shows up as a blending grape in Loire Valley along with Cabernet Franc and Gamay. And, finally, it does feature as a single varietal star in Southwest France in the Cahors appellation region where it has recently seen a resurgence in popularity. But, alas, if you mention Malbec to the average bear, they associate it with where the varietal is in fact an immigrant, across an ocean and a latitudinal hemisphere: Argentina.
Malbec does well at high altitudes in Argentina
Unlike Chenin Blanc in South Africa and País in Chile, Malbec is a relatively recent immigrant to Argentina, having arrived in 1868 via a French agriculturist, Michel Pouget; however, it has thrived spectacularly and taken on a personality unique to its adopted land. It has become so proliferate in Argentine winemaking that it is exported internationally and recognized more than Malbec that is still grown in France, even in the Cahors appellation where it makes a single varietal wine. And, indeed, the single varietal wine the Argentine Malbec makes is much different than that of Cahors; it is softer with less tannin even while taking on more alcoholic girth. Although planted throughout Argentina, the most highly rated Malbec wines come from grapes grown in the high altitude Mendoza region in the subregions Luján de Cuyo and the Uco Valley. As already a thick skinned grape by nature, the cold nights allow a slow ripening and daily halt in sugar production, allowing phenolics and other chemical components and acidity ample time to establish themselves to be significant components in the juice, resulting in wines with lots of character and age-worthiness.
The Mendel estate is close to 100 years old.
Featured October Amaro Wine Club Malbec in Argentina wine: Mendel Malbec (2020)
Mendel Winery is part of an estate that has been family-owned and operated for almost 100 years. The family has astutely partnered with Roberto de la Mota, one of Argentina's and the world’s most respected and experienced winemakers. As such, the winery’s sole objective is to produce wines of unquestionable, superior quality that express the character of their old vineyards in the Lujan de Cuyo region.
This wine is made from 100% Malbec grapes from vines with an average age of 91 years grown at an altitude of 3,115 feet (950 meters). After fermentation, the wine is aged in Taransaud oak Burgundy barrels for 12 months.
FOOD PAIRINGS: Rib-eye steak, leg of lamb, creamy mushroom dishes, gorgonzola cheese.
Masseria Li Veli is situated on 85 acres planted with native varietals: Negroamaro, Primitivo, Susumaniello, Verdeca, and Minutolo