Monday 23rd September 2013, 10:00AM BST.
In the final edition of his tour of white varieties, our expert Richard Allisette looks at some of his favourite lesser-known grapes – before he starts on the reds…
OVER the years I have taken part in more tastings than you could shake a whole barrel load of sticks at.
Some have been short and sweet, some so vast they are hard to imagine – last week I was at a tasting in London’s Olympia with more than 4,000 wines on show – and some were fascinating and a privilege to attend.
Probably the most memorable took place in Australia’s Hunter Valley during one of my first visits to that fascinating country.
A large group of UK wine journalists, restaurateurs, merchants and general wine geeks found ourselves at the McWilliams Mount Pleasant winery, producers of one of my favourite whites from anywhere – Elizabeth.
Elizabeth is made from just one grape variety, semillon. And we were there not just to taste the current release but more than 20 different vintages of the same wine, the vast majority of course no longer available. This is known as a vertical tasting.
The Hunter Valley has made dry semillon its own, but the wines need time – when it is young one well-known Australian master of wine has described it quite accurately as ‘battery acid’. But give it a few years and it turns into one of the most complex and complete white wines imaginable, with flavours of toast and honey cut through with a rapier thrust of lime-juice acidity. And what we found is that you need to keep Elizabeth until it is at least 15 years old for this metamorphosis to take place.
All our top marks went to vintages that were older than this.
Outside of the Hunter Valley, it is best known for producing the greatest sweet wines in the world in Sauternes and Barsac. Like the dry HV versions, these need years to show at their best – particularly from the top chateaux and vintages where wines can last a century or more. Complexity is the order of the day, but you need a deep pocket and lots of patience – and a liking for intensely sweet wines, I suppose.
Dry semillon is also made in Bordeaux, though it is quite often blended with sauvignon to perk up its acidity and freshness. The best come from Graves, or Pessac–Leognans as it is now known. You will also find dry semillon in Western Australia, the USA, South Africa and New Zealand. Many are oak aged so check the back label if you are not a fan.
This has really taken off in our shop in the past couple of years. And with good reason – it makes a pleasant change for sauvignon blanc drinkers looking for something different but not too different.
The best is found in the Rueda area of Spain and it is possible to buy cheap and cheerful verdejo for a fiver or so and quite serious wines for £10 or more. You can also keep it for a few years, when it takes on slightly nutty flavours, but most people prefer to drink it young and fresh.
I am a big fan of verdicchio. Although the cheap and cheerful versions are not much more than an Italian-style muscadet to be knocked back with some seafood while on holiday, it can also produce quite serious, intense, honeyed wines capable of aging.
It is found mainly in the Marche area of Italy and it really depends on where the grapes are grown and how late they are picked as to the style of wine you get. You can usually tell if it’s cheap stuff because it comes in an amphora-shaped bottle. The more serious wines are in more normal Bordeaux or burgundy-shaped bottles, as though the grower is trying to indicate he is trying to make a less frivolous wine. My favourite verdicchio comes from the Matelica region, which seems to give the wines a more mineral note and makes them ideal for cutting through rich shellfish dishes.
The variety is found all over Italy and in the south of France, particularly Provence, where it is known as rolle. It is a versatile grape and is particularly suited to seafood. My favourite vermentino-based wines come from Sardinia. These seem to have a breadth and depth that can be missing in other places. Flavours are typically Italian, with nuts, herbs and a citrusy background. These are not lightweight whites, they are robust in structure and usually quite alcoholic, but they suit spicy seafood very well – squid sautéed in garlic and chili or spaghetti with clams is ideal.
- Next week we will start our journey through the lesser-known red grape varieties.