Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Obscure Varietal Tasting: Torrontes and Alicante Bouschet

OK, this was more weekend sipping than tasting, but I did taste a couple of not so common grapes. And I liked them.

The first obscure varietal came by way of the Crios de Susana Balbo 2008 Torrontes. Torrontes is, as far as I know, essentially indigenous to Argentina. Although European settlers probably brought what is now known as Torrontes to Argentina centuries ago, Argentina is the only place where this varietal is currently grown. As much as Argentina is known for its Malbec, Torrontes may well turn out to be Argentina's signature grape. Torrontes is extremely aromatic, much like Viognier, yet also has a high level of acidity like Sauvignon Blanc. At least this is what the bottle says, though this basic description is repeated in multiple locations on the web. If you're familiar with the floral aromas and tropical fruit a Viognier provides, you'll definitely want to look for some Torrontes.

The Crios 2008 Torrontes is probably a good starting point. I've had a couple of other wines from Susana Balbo and wasn't incredibly excited by them. There were well-made, tasty and easy to drink, but weren't quite as edgy or individualized as I'd hoped. The Torrontes is similarly user friendly and does have a fairly soft borderline sweet peach flavor. But there is also a healthy level of acidity which leads to a decently lingering and refreshing finish. That for me is the key a white wine: ripping acidity. This Torrontes, however, goes above and beyond the call of duty with its bouquet. It's a cross between lemon zest, tropical fruit, jasmin and peaches. It smells damn good, like a true lady wearing an expensive perfume. Although I don't want to anthropomorphise too heavily, the Crios Torrontes is pretty damn seductive. And yet she's also a cheap date at $12!

Score: 88-90
Price: $12 at Costco

Our Saturday night sipper was the Wellington 2006 Noir de Noirs. "Dark from darks" you say? Aren't all red wines from dark grapes? The Noir de Noirs is composed mostly of Alicante Bouschet, a dark, thick skinned grape with dark pulp as well. Nearly all vitis vinifera varietals have lightly colored pulp; red wines typically get their color entirely from their skins. But teinturiers like Alicante Bouschet get their deep color from both the skin and pulp, hence Wellington's Noir de Noirs nomenclature. Plural you say? That's because the Noir de Noirs also has a bit of the teinturiers Lenoir, Grand Noir and Petite Bouschet (which was crossed with Grenache to produce Alicante Bouschet). Pity the fool who picks up a bottle of Noir de Noirs thinking it'll be Pinot Noir! This wine was made entirely from low yielding old vines. Alicante Bouschet was prized during the Great Depression and Prohibition for its hardiness during transportation and the amount of inky juice one could extract. Thus, the few Alicante vines still around are holdovers from a different era.

The bouquet of this wine was nice, but not spectacular. Alicante Bouschet is not known as a noble grape, and the bouquet seemed to reflect its reputation. There's a big dose of primal grapey fruit, some rose and a bit of coffee. However, the taste is another story. The ABV is a moderate 13.8%, yet the wine is concentrated and viscous with a pervasive minerality (aside: I'm not quite sure what minerality means or if you can even taste "minerals," though in the context of wine it generally relates a silky, non-fruit quality). Even better, there's great acidity and mellow tannins to keep everything in balance. This is one of the best tasting wines I've had recently. Best of all, the finish is elegant and seamless. It's a muscular wine with gobs of fruit, but there's also a ton of classiness under the angular exterior. Everything is in place for an interesting sipper: obscure varietals, individual character and general tastiness. A bit pricey, but worth it. Coppola Winery has an Alicante out as well for around $14, and the Wellington easily blows that away. And as you can see from the blurred image of a Blue Ram swimming towards the bottle, even the fish dig it.

Score: 90-92
Price: $25 from Wellington Vineyards (though I paid around $19)

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