Chris Boiling is a winemaker and wine and travel writer. You can find his work at JancisRobinson.com, VinCE magazine and of course WTM, where he wants to share his passion for the wines and wine regions of Central and Eastern Europe.
It’s an expensive time to travel, so let’s order up some unusual wines and imagine we’re in these exotic places. Wine Tourist Magazine’s Chris Boiling tells us about the grapes that are closely identified with a specific geographic region…
Wine grapes are becoming more and more international. Grapes that I once associated with a particular region are now being planted in the USA, China, and Australia. You can find Nebbiolo in Mexico, Sangiovese in Bulgaria and Gamay in California and Oregon. I recently tasted an orange Albariño made in Great Britain!
But there are still some grape varieties that, for me at least, are firmly linked with one particular place. And this holiday season, when I want to be transported off the couch and away from the in-laws, these are the varietals I will open. And these are the places I will be visiting in my mind:
MOUNT FUJI, JAPAN
Japan’s highest mountain can be viewed from most of the vineyards growing Koshu, the country’s flagship grape. The pink-skinned variety produces a delicate, light-bodied, refreshing, relatively low-alcohol (10-12%) wine that pairs beautifully with Japanese dishes such as sashimi and sushi.
It probably came to Japan from Europe but the 80 or so wineries in the Yamanashi Prefecture, about 100km west of Tokyo, have made it their own. This region, with the cone-shaped Mount Fuji as its backdrop, accounts for 40% of Japan’s domestic wine production and about 90% of its Koshu wine. Koshu, in fact, is the old name for Yamanashi.
While most of the Koshu wines that I’ve tried are delightfully light and dry, there is a good deal of experimentation going on and you will find oaked, late harvest, and sparkling versions out there somewhere.
The small village of Areni, about 60 miles from Mount Ararat (where Noah's Ark landed), has become famous as the place where archaeologists unearthed the world’s oldest winery. It’s in a cave complex now called Areni-1, and they reckon it is more than 6,000 years old.
The village has also given its name to a potentially delicious, ungrafted grape variety, Areni Noir. When not over-cropped and grown at high altitude, it can produce a dark, bold red that’s slightly spicy and has hints of raspberry, cherry and herbs.
Melnik, Bulgaria’s smallest town, is only 30km from the border with Greece. It’s a pretty little town on the slopes leading up from the Struma River in the warmest part of Bulgaria.
It has also given its name to a couple of red grapes – Broad-Leaved Melnik and, my favourite, Early Melnik (Melnik 55). Melnik blends well with other reds, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Bulgaria’s other top red grape, Mavrud.
The wines are full of red and black fruits, spices, herbs and tobacco, and have excellent aging potential.
This is a very unusual wine region. It’s a 431m-high extinct volcano rising up from the Pannonian Plain, with a patchwork of vineyards all the way round it (most hills in Hungary don’t grow grapes on their northern side). It only has about 832ha of vineyards, but they are owned by 1,204 individual wine producers! There are two largish outfits, Tornai and Kreinbacher, and about 42 who are selling their wines commercially.
Many of the properties on the hill are weekend houses, as they don’t have running water and some aren’t connected to electricity. However, Hungary’s second smallest region produces some excellent, distinctive terroir-driven wines with grapes such as Furmint, Hárslevelű and Olaszrizling. The grape it has practically all to itself is Juhfark.
Juhfark means ‘sheep’s tail’ and it describes the shape of the bunch. The wines aren’t anything special when they are young, but their high acidity and minerality turns into something special after three to five years. Locals say it’s the taste of Somló hill.
There’s a beautiful stretch of the Danube west of Vienna that goes through the wine regions of Wachau, Kremstal, and Kamptal. When you hear about wines having a sense of place, then this is the place for Grüner Veltliner. The vineyards soar up on walled terraces on the north side of the river. Grüner Veltliner is usually planted on the richer lower terraces and the region’s other key grape, Riesling, is planted on the steeper, rockier upper parts.
The typical ‘GrüVee’ from this region is a green-tinged, full-bodied, intriguingly spicy, white peppery wine that can be enjoyed on its own or with dishes such as fried fish, grilled chicken or Wiener schnitzel. The higher-alcohol ‘Reserve’ wines also stand up to spicy Asian meals.
Dürnstein is one of the many quaint towns in this part of the world. High above the town – about a 30-minute hike away – are the ruins of the castle where Richard Lionheart was imprisoned in 1193.
Dingač is a small area on the dangerously steep south-facing slopes of the Pelješac peninsula in Dalmatia, just north of Dubrovnik. Croatia’s first recognised appellation, in 1961, it gives its name to a special red wine made of partially dried Plavac Mali grapes.
Close to the sea and on slopes tilting towards the sun, many of the grapes shrivel, concentrating their flavors. This is where Croatia’s top red grape, Plavac Mali (a relative of Primitivo/Zinfandel), has its richest expression. The color is dark ruby with purple hues. The aromas and flavors of dried fruits, blackberries, cherries, pepper, liquorice, and spices burst out of the glass. The finish is both savoury and sweet!
LAKE SKADAR, MONTENEGRO
Only two-thirds of the lake – the largest lake in the Balkans – is in Montenegro. The rest is in Albania. But it is Montenegro’s main wine region and home to a black-skinned, tannic, potentially powerful variety that has real character, Vranac. Its translation actually gives you a good indication of what it’s like: ‘strong black’ or ‘black stallion’.
The flavors and aromas range from sour cherry, blackberry and blackcurrant cassis to chocolate, mint and vanilla, with a pleasant bitterness on the finish.
Modena is one of the world’s great gastronomic cities and the wine that goes with most of the dishes is the much-maligned Lambrusco. Here, the typical Lambrusco wine is red, lightly fizzy with a pink froth, very fruity (think raspberry, strawberry, redcurrant), nearly always secco (dry), low in alcohol and has a good vein of acidity that cuts through rich dishes. So, actually, it’s perfect for this time of year.
There is evidence that Lambrusco, a family of Vitis Sylvestris grapes, has been growing on the Italian peninsula for millions of years and were cultivated around the Modena area before the Romans arrived. The two main subtypes producing quality wines are Sorbara and Grasparossa. Lambrusco di Sorbara is the most subtle and is being used for some outstanding classic-method fizz by producers such as Cantina della Volta. Grasparossa is a much more intense grape, producing lively Charmat-method fizz that is a deep ruby red with purple hues, and has a matching blackcurrant, blackberry fix on the nose and palate. It is also higher in acidity and tannins.
The top blends, featuring other members of the Lambrusco family, are labelled DOC Modena or DOC Reggiano.
CIVIDALE DEL FRIULI, ITALY
As a wine lover, you have to love Italy for the quality of its top wines and for the sheer breadth of its grape varieties. So I make no excuse for having two stops in Italy. The first, the Lambrusci of Modena, made it because it’s a wine that deserves a second chance but please make sure it’s the secco version. The second grape deserves a first chance.
Many people who have tried Picolit say it is one of Italy’s greatest grapes. Ian D’Agata, one of the leading experts on Italian wine, has said: “For me, Picolit is a reason for living.” The problem is, it’s a poor pollinator and the small bunches don’t have many berries on them. However, the berries that do grow are packed with delicious flavors, which are further extenuated by harvesting late or drying the berries.
The limited number of bottles of Picolit that are produced around the small, quiet, medieval town of Cividale del Friuli generally contain an amazingly light, delicate dessert wine. It’s a wine that would be mentioned in the same breath as Sauternes or Tokaji if it were more readily available. The flavors that will take you to this far northeastern part of Italy, near the border with Austria and Slovenia, are acacia honey, dried apricot, ripe tropical fruits, white flowers, and orange peel. Although I tend to have sweet wines with dessert, my Italian friends have Picolit with foie gras, oysters and pumpkin gnocchi and truffles. That beats turkey any day!