Head to your local wine bar to inquire what's being poured by the glass, and the response will likely be quite different than what it would've been just a few years back.
Once flooded with varietal Cabs and Sauvignon Blancs, BTG lists have since found themselves laden with single-vineyard Pais, sparkling, Valdiguié, and other "lesser-known" varieties that are finally having spotlight moments. However, these grapes are anything but new. On the contrary, these varieties are some of the most historic and influential Vitis vinifera on the planet. So why the sudden spike in popularity?
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In northern Italy, Laura Gatti, vice president of Consorzio Franciacorta and owner of Ferghettina winery, explains that she's recently decided to recultivate Erbamat, an indigenous variety to Lombardy that was not permitted in Franciacorta wines by DOCG regulations until 2017. (Note: Today, the maximum inclusion of Erbamat by DOCG law is 10 percent, save for Satèn production, in which it is not permitted.) Her reasoning? To honor regional history and adapt to climate change.
"Erbamat is a challenge, but I want my Franciacorta to express the territory to the maximum. What better way to achieve this than to include a native grape?" she ponders. Erbamat's difficulty lies in the fact that its flavor profile can be rather neutral, though its acidity can often be too austere to be enjoyed as a monovarietal bottling. The grape's history in Brescia dates back to the 1500s, when it was first documented by Italian agronomist Agostino Gallo. Gatti describes that in addition to being autochthonous, Erbamat is a slow and late-ripening variety, unlike Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Noir.
"Erbamat also maintains high acidity, which is very positive, especially considering that the last few harvests were rather warm," says Gatti, noting that the DOCG's limited 10 percent inclusion is attributed to the fact that local winemakers do not want to distort the overall profile of Franciacorta, yet they remain encouraged to gradually change and experiment with local varieties. Gatti additionally cites Erbamat's naturally high acidity as beneficial to Franciacorta wines during this period of global warming.
For others, resurrecting ancient varieties is less about climate change and more about honoring history. Michael Kennedy, founder of Vin Fraiche/Gagnon-Kennedy Vineyards explains that this was the impetus for his and Marc Gagnon's (winemaker at Gagnon-Kennedy Vineyards, formerly of Screaming Eagle) choice to work with Valdiguié.
"Historically, there was a huge amount of 'Napa Gamay' [Valdiguié] planted in Napa Valley. Iconic old examples from founding wineries are incredible, so we set out to make our own expression in a modern style," says Kennedy. Gagnon-Kennedy vinifies their Valdiguié using carbonic maceration and bottles the wine with slight effervescence, a style that Gagnon feels respects its inherent nature.
Kennedy reveals that in addition to bottling with effervescence, he and Gagnon allow their Valdiguié to age sur-lie, which allows for oxygen protection, flavor development, and adds a bit of yeasty character to an otherwise bright and fresh wine. Only 100 cases of GKV Valdiguié are produced annually, and in terms of consumer feedback, Kennedy admits that it often takes some initial education.
"Our market is made up of deeply passionate California wine lovers, so we felt comfortable helping them step outside of the Cabernet box," explains Kennedy. "When we pour this wine, it takes a bit of disclaiming, but it's always worth it when we have the chance to help our collectors learn from and enjoy our wines." On the contrary, Kennedy reveals that GKV's Valdiguié is often an instant hit amongst the sommelier community.
Elsewhere in California, sommelier-turned-winemaker Patrick Cappiello seeks to honor the state's rich viticultural history through his work with the Mission grape. "Monte Rio Cellars was inspired by old California, so it made total sense to work with one of the oldest varieties planted in the state," he says, noting that Mission was first planted in California by Spanish missionaries during the mid to late 1800s. Cappiello describes that this is how the grape received its name Mission, though the variety goes by other names elsewhere: Pais in South America, Listán Prieto in Spain, and so forth.
At Monte Rio, Cappiello vinifies his Mission using 100 percent whole-cluster carbonic maceration for 10 days in stainless steel, then presses it into a combination of concrete and steel tanks. Primary fermentation is executed with native yeasts and aging is done for six months in old wood barrels, with no sulfur used during the winemaking process. In 2010, only 380 cases were produced.
As Capiello mentions, California isn't the only place where Mission's rich history is being revived. In Chile, Luca Hodgkinson, has been reviving Pais alongside his brother José Miguel for a handful of years, though the duo wasn't always passionate about the variety.
"We had been tasting many Pais wines around Chile for many years, but we were never truly inspired by it until we tasted the 2006 Clos Ouvert from Louis-Antoine Luyt a couple of years ago," he recalls, citing how he and his brother were immediately taken by the wine's ability to age gracefully. A few years later, the brothers were serendipitously given an opportunity to work with a small abandoned Pais vineyard; to their surprise, the plot happened to be the same vineyard from which fruit for the bottle of Luyt's wine came. Naturally, they jumped.
Hodgkinson reveals that the vineyard still needs much investment and pruning, though they are excited to be working with this special piece of historic land. "The story of Pais in Chile is that it is simply that it was the first grape ever planted here," explains Hodgkinson. Today, the brothers vinify their Pais as naturally as possible, with a hint of Grenache (Garnacha) added to round out the cuvée.
In Catalonia, Mariona and Alberto Canela of Succes Vinicola began working with the native red variety Trepat, despite the fact that the region's holy trio of Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada are undoubtedly more fashionable. "Trepat is the only indigenous red variety found in Conca de Barbera," the duo explains, citing the grape's rich history on Spain's eastern coast.
"Pre-phylloxera, Trepat was planted all the way down to Valencia, though after the vines were replated, the grape was only revived in Conca de Barbera, as Trepat is a variety that is better-suited to cooler, high-elevation areas," says Canela. However, nearly 90 percent of Catalan Trepat is destined for Cava production – that is, except for in the DO of Conca de Barbera.
Canela explains that as of 2004, the DO of Conca de Barbera requires that each winery produce one varietal Trepat, though Succes Vinicola will have seven available on the market this year. The Canelas vinify their Trepats with a non-interventionist mentality, using native yeasts from the vineyards and a light hand in the cellar.
In New York, Nathan Kendall and Pascaline Lepeltier MS look to the state's ancient hybrid varieties, rather than the more fashionable Riesling, Pinot Noir, and others, to produce their boutique range of wines. Kendall explains that the inspiration to work with these varieties was found in a desire to recreate and honor the original wines that put New York State on America's viticultural radar back in the 19th Century.
"Both Delaware and Catawba were highly sought-after varieties and were known to make some of the best sparkling wines from the region, though what's really unique to these grapes is their chemistry," Kendall reveals, citing that the grapes' naturally low pH renders them quite stable during the vinification process. "This allows us to make wines without the use of sulfites or any other additions whatsoever."
At Chepika, Kendall and Lepeltier vinify two ancestral method sparklings and one still rosé, the sparklings of which are riddled by hand and disgorged a la volée (sparkling). Only a few hundred cases of each cuvée are produced.
Moral of the story? Drinking resurrected varieties is like tasting antiquity with a modern-day twist. If history does indeed repeat itself, in this instance, we're grateful – and thirsty for more.