At what point does something stop being a coincidence and start to become a bona fide trend? That’s been the question on my mind over the last week, when three things happened that would, individually, have been merely curious but collectively appear perhaps more meaningful.
First the Wine Society sent out an offer for “Off the Beaten Track” producers – lots of stuff from Eastern Europe, plus Turkey, Morocco and a few unknown corners of more familiar countries. Unusual grapes included novac, fernão pires, tămâiosă, Kalecik Karasi and malagoussia.
Then last week Laithwaites unveiled four new and relatively unusual wines that will be added to their portfolio in April – reds from Georgia and Turkey, a white from Greece and, most surprising of all, a three-year-old sauvignon blanc from India. As it happened just hours before I headed off to try that quartet I was in another corner of London trying a dozen Japanese wines made from the koshu grape, almost all of which are now available in the UK.
For anyone appalled at the torrential downpour of identikit vinous tosh that thunders down the British gullet on a weekly basis, the possibility of us collectively rousing from our Pinot Grigio-enduced torpor and actively seeking out outstanding examples of obscure grape varieties from unexplored locations would seem attractive if outlandishly unlikely. But clearly there are plenty of magpies out there with an eye out for an unusual jewel.
I haven’t tried any of the Wine Society’s offerings, but I did try Laithwaites’ newbies, with varying degrees of success: Mantra sauvignon blanc 2009, the Indian white, is for curiosity and particularly devilish blind-tasting games only, lacking the zip and excitement which has made the grape so popular (it’s a bit of a surprise to find anyone adding a three-year-old sauvignon to their list, but it’s actually the latest release from a winery who were apparently too unimpressed with the fruit they grew in 2010 and 2011 to make any wine at all). Thema, the Greek white, a 60/40 blend of assyrtiko and sauvignon blanc, is excellently refreshing and bright, if not a huge bargain at £11.49 (Waitrose sell a very reliable assyrtiko which is a little cheaper and is one of the bargains of their 25% off sales). The Turkish red (Vinart 2010, £10.99), a blend of kalecik karasi and syrah, was a bit confected and flabby (though had its fans elsewhere in the room) but I thought the Tbilvino saperavi 2010, while so dark, thick and deep as to be suitable almost entirely for the chilly months its April release date will be perfectly timed to miss, was good value at £8.99.
Laithwaites already have a few wines from Eastern Europe, including pinot grigios from Moldova and Hungary (Campanulla, which is perhaps surprisingly the best-selling white wine in their entire range, and is currently discounted by a pound from the usual £6.99). Among the offerings from their Moldovan brand, Albastrele, is a white cabernet sauvignon, which is taking unusualness to unusual levels. I didn’t get to try that one, but I was pleasantly surprised by a Romanian pinot noir (not one for the purists, but decent value at £7.29).
And that brings us to the koshu, the first time I’d tried Japanes wines that weren’t sake and an introduction to a new grape. Fascinating stuff, this, grown in an area devilled by ludicrous summer rainfall even in a good year – last year wasn’t one of those: there were three tornadoes last September alone, when rainfall was triple the average. This leads to high humidity and a need to protect the bunches of plump grapes from the downpour with individual waterproof hats. The upshot is very clean, normally totally dry and generally extremely acidic wines. Most of those I tasted were barrel samples of the 2011 vintage, but I was impressed. The only downside is that by the time you fit each bunch with individual waterproof hats, ease them through a crazily testing growing season, turn them into wine, submit them for tough radiation testing (an expensive necessity for Japanese imports to the EU these days), transport them a couple of thousand miles and then add on Britain’s frustratingly high tax and duty, they’re not very cheap. The cheapest bottle I can find in the UK is £15.99; Amathus have three different examples including a rare sparkler and Selfridges is the best place in London to pick up a bottle.
Or you can just have a pinot grigio. It’s up to you.