The ABC team
Monday 30th September 2013, 10:00AM BST.
Our expert Richard Allisette begins an A to Z trawl through the lesser known red grape varieties in search of relatively unknown but inspiring wines…
ONE of the most memorable dishes I have eaten in a restaurant involved no cooking at all. It was the sheer notion of the whole thing that was inspired. Giorgio Locatelli’s restaurant, Locanda Locatelli, just off Oxford Street in London, is the sort of place I would normally hate.
For a start, it’s in the wing of a large hotel full of the sort of people who shout at foreigners if they don’t understand what they’re saying. It’s run by a TV chef, which, I have found to my cost, normally means high prices for food that’s been resting on its laurels and possibly the kitchen hotplate for far too long, and its clients are high-powered business types taking far more interest in their wheeling and dealing than the stuff on their plate.
But go for Sunday lunch and it’s the most charming, laid-back place, full of smiling staff and some pretty sensational food – with not a mobile phone in sight. On my last visit, it was the cheese plate that really stuck in my memory.
There were, I think, eight small pieces of different Italian cheeses laid out in a circular pattern, in order from mildest to strongest, and each cheese came with a teaspoon of a honey designed to complement it. It was simple and perfect. To drink with it, I chose one of my favourite sweet red wines, an aleatico from Candido in Puglia. It worked wonderfully well – the slight bitter-sweetness of the wine working with rather than against the honey and cheese combinations.
Aleatico: An unusual red grape this, because it smells like a white wine. Give it to me blind and I’d be tempted to think of something from Alsace – it has the same rose-petal scent as gewürztraminer. The wine it makes is sweet, but not quite as sweet as port, which you can replace with it at the end of a meal. It is also a great wine to savour with a nibble of dark, bitter chocolate.
Bonarda: I’ll stick with the Argentinean version of this. Bonarda is also found in Italy, but it is thought to be a different grape entirely. Argentina has become known for the quality of its malbec but there are quite a few winemakers who think bonarda is actually the better grape. I tasted at least half a dozen quite decent versions at a recent Argentinean tasting in London. The grape has a scent of wild red berries with a touch of Bovril/balsamic vinegar in the background. It is worth trying as it is usually a bit cheaper than the same grower’s malbec.
Cabernet franc: This usually plays second fiddle to its more famous cousin, cabernet sauvignon, but in the right hands it makes a deliciously fruity, gulpable red – a little like Beaujolais’ gamay but with more backbone. If you have drunk a local red while on holiday near the Loire Valley, you may have drunk cabernet franc without realising it. You’ll find it in the best Loire reds, like Chinon, Saumur Champigny, St Nicolas de Bourgeuil and Bourgeuil.
Cabernet franc is also grown in Bordeaux, but is usually blended with other grapes, as it is in northern Italy and New Zealand. The grape has a distinct, raspberry edge, with a touch of cassis, and is best served cool when the weather is warm.
Carignan: A much-maligned grape. It used to be responsible for much of the southern European wine lake as it produces huge quantities of wine compared with other varieties. However, in the right hands, it makes a lovely warm, ripe red and has a dedicated band of followers.
I visited John Bojanowksi at the Clos de Gravillas in Minervois a couple of years ago to find that he started a carignan society for growers dedicated to the grape. John single-handedly saved a plot of century-old carignan, clearing the site by hand.
The resultant wine, Lo Vielh, is one of the most sublime southern French wines I have ever tasted and is much sought after by sommeliers at French three-star Michelin restaurants – not bad for a grape that many still see as ‘the weed of the Languedoc’.
Carignan is also found in Sardinia, where it is known as carignano, and these can be more reliable than their French cousins. Full-bodied, with smoky blueberry/blackberry fruit, these are not delicate flowers, but if you are cooking something like a rich meat stew, slow-cooked lamb or suchlike, they have the guts to complement the strongest flavours.
They are also great reds with hard Italian cheeses like pecorino or Parmesan. In Spain, carignan is called mazuelo and it can be found in some rioja blends, though rarely on its own.