Tuesday, December 23, 2008

WN: Tasting a Couple of Obscure Varietals: Aglianico & Bonarda

It's been a while since I've had an obscure varietal. Tasting Chards and Syrahs is about as anti-obscure as you can get. Fortunately I got back on track with the Villa Carafa 2004 Sannio Aglianico. Aglianico is a dark skinned grape grown in southern Italy and was the varietal used in Falernian wine, the most desired wine in early Rome. The wine this varietal produces is typically described as being dark garnet, tannic, acidic and rich. I have tasted one Aglianico previously, but it was a cheap $5 wine that tasted like a generic inoffensive fake-fruity wine. I figured I'd have better luck finding some varietal expression at a slightly higher price point.

For the most part, this wine lived up to its advance billing. The bouquet was a great combination of crushed flowers, minerality, earth and blackberries. I was kind of hoping this one would bring some good barnyard, too, but it offered more freshly plowed dirt than cow pasture. The palate turned out to be a bit thin, though. The acidity was relatively high while the tannins were moderately low. A modest 13.5% alcohol level and good acidity led to a smooth, lingering cranberry infused finish. In the end, the palate didn't live up to the lively bouquet largely because of the light body. But the varietal itself is definitely worthy of further investigation and this wine in particular would go well with a meal that calls for a dry, palate-cleansing red. The fact that it's not alcoholic, cloyingly fruity or sweet and finishes smoothly while offering a bit of character places it in a favorable position in my book.

Score: 85-88
Price: $15 from Wine Library

The other half of bargain offered in the title of this post comes by way of Mendoza, Argentina. Mendoza is well known for its Malbec with other Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon garnering most of the remainder of the attention. Bonarda, though, seems to have carved out its own niche and is either the most or second most widely planted grape in Argentina (depending of what you read). It's rumored to have been brought to Argentina by Italian immigrants, though genetic testing has linked it to the Savoie region in southeastern France. And if that's not confusing enough, Bonarda is known as Charbono in California where it is currently out of favor. It's supposed to produce a hardy, tannic yet fruity wine that's relatively low in alcohol despite the grapes requiring a longer growing season. Given that it's not a blockbuster grape like Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah that makes jammy wine, it's no surprise that its share of the market here is relatively slim.

Fortunately, Altos las Hormigas has sent us Colonia las Liebres 2006 Bonarda from the southern hemisphere. I didn't take careful, thoughtful notes on this one, but it was definitely a pleasant wine for the price. The nose was very floral with a honey component while there was also a taste of honey without any of the accompanying sweetness one might anticipate. It's definitely a fruit forward style as one would expect given that this wine saw no oak when it was aged. All in all, it's a solid bottle of wine for the price that offers a little rustic character of its own while retaining a nice balance of fruit, alcohol and structure. It's definitely a re-buy.

There's one more twist though that adds to the entertainment value of this wine. It's bottled unfiltered, so in addition to the fermented juice, you'll get the chunky portions of the grape must as well. Most wineries filter their wine for two reasons. First and foremost, the left over material can make a nice home for spoilage microbes. If there's not sufficient care taken in adding sulfur dioxide prior to bottling, there can be significant bottle variation depending on which bacteria or yeast succeed in colonizing the wine. The second reason is simply marketing. Americans are used to processed food that's virtually anticeptic. If we saw what went into a hot dog, chances are we wouldn't eat it. So most wineries do their best to suck out any particulate matter that would make their wine seem "dirty." In reality, they rob the wine of flavor, but if Americans cared more about flavor than homogeneity, there wouldn't be an Applebees in every town. At any rate, it's refreshing that a producer would dare to market a wine that virtually demands decanting and flies in the face of the typical mentality at the under $10 price range. I was pretty careless when decanting this bottle and ended up with some great sediment in my glass as a souvenir after the last glass.

Score: 84-87
Price: $9 from Cost Plus World Market

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