Learning to love wines from ancient lands
Fine wines from Armenia and Turkey are not what you might imagine
Sunday afternoon I went to a high mountainside in Armenia and drank a magnificent red wine that was deep and rich in fruit and fresh and silky. I wish I had done all of that physically, but it was only the glass and the wine – for the rest I was in Sierre, Switzerland, captured by two good speakers, a slide show and a small group of wine producers who shared wines I had not dreamed exist.
Note to self: doublecheck where it is on the map and buy a ticket to Armenia.
In my excitement I thought all of you would rush to understand how wonderful wines can be that come from the ancient world around greater Mesopotamia (remember “the cradle of civilisation” from your history books?). Just in case this is the case, here’s a link to my article on an extraordinary presentation “The possible dialogue between Armenian and Turkish wines”, organized by the Valais Wine Museum with speakers José Vouillamoz and Jean-Luc Etievent, with notes on the wines we tasted. Hint: the wines were all very, very good and not at all weird! The sold-out conference was part of a series on East meets West in a historical perspective, organized by the museum.
Reality check: I came home to a message from a friend about an article I hadn’t managed to read earlier in the morning, by Jason Wilson in the New York Times, Why you should be drinking weird wines. If we’re drinking wines that are made from something other than international grapes – the ones that grow and are grown just about anywhere and whose names sound familiar, like Syrah/Shiraz and Cabernet – then we are drinking weird wines and that’s trendy. Or trendy with the wine subculture that is wine geeks. Sigh. I don’t want to be one of those; I just love good wine and want to learn more about it without all the trappings of the world of wine snobs.
But I like something Wilson wrote, since he seems to understand those of us who did not grow up surrounded by vineyards and wine and expensive restaurants and who at some point ran into the wine snob bump but bravely carried on learning.
“The trend has been around long enough that some of the names, like Albariño from Spain or Grüner Veltliner from Austria, are considered old hat by serious wine enthusiasts. Nowadays, the trendy names include Juhfark, from Hungary; Obaideh, from Lebanon; Chasselas, from Switzerland; and Saperavi, from the Republic of Georgia. Some of this newfound love for obscure grapes can be overbearing, a way for wine geeks to draw a line between those who drink Pinot Grigio…and the true connoisseur. Still, whether they mean to or not, the snobs may be onto something.”
Chasselas? My home canton main white grape – what is it doing on that list? Would all those Brits who’ve skied in Switzerland and ended the day with a bottle of Fendant aka Chasselas say it was obscure? Also, it’s been around quite a long time, first mentioned in writing in 1539 according to Wine Grapes, one of whose co-authors, José Vouillamoz, was interviewed for the article.
Not for the first time, I remembered how American the NY Times can be; if it isn’t USA daily bread, it’s exotic and weird and obscure. So let me plead here for the difference between grapes that have been doing very nicely, thank you, for a long time but that simply aren’t available in your home market (most Swiss wines if you’re anywhere else) and wines from grapes that are making a serious comeback.
The comeback grapes
By comeback I mean that wineries, particularly in Europe and Asia – our ancient world – are learning to make modern wines from their traditional grapes. Ironically the producers are often turning to their past for tips on good methods in the vineyard and in the cellar. They are trying with varying degrees of success to make wines for an international market, and they are trying to get our attention. Not all of these wines are equally good; Moldavian wines that I tasted at Arvinis in Montreux last month were a mix of very good to mediocre. The less-good are often the wines made from international grapes, with smaller numbers of far-sighted producers investing in the riskier but potentially more interesting older native grapes.
Switzerland is making some excellent wines from grapes that it nearly lost because production and the number of vines had fallen so low: Cornalin is a very good red wine example, as is Completer, a white.
So why should we care? Wilson mentions richer biodiversity, sustainability and maybe a better drinking experience. All good reasons and I would add to this that we’re seeing the shortcomings of the 20th century industrial boom in winemaking and we simply long for something better.
Huge technical strides were made over the past century that allowed growers to produce more grapes, more cheaply, and to make and move large quantities of wine. Marketing jumped into the game and taught us we should like recipe wines, made to taste the same no matter what, from one year to the next. Very comforting if you don’t know anything about wine and want to make sure you don’t buy a lemon. Meanwhile, investors and auction houses created the notion that some bottles were worth thousands and if you couldn’t appreciate a wine like that you probably didn’t know your stuff. The wine snob world was born and went international.
But then several wine regions suffered gluts and grape prices fell, grapes that were easier to grow than old varieties sometimes had less character, growers started to worry about their own health after a few decades of pesticides and insecticides, wine drinkers who lived far from vineyards heard rumours that nature never intended wines to taste the same from one year to the next, and overall we became more aware of health concerns linked to food and wine.
In short, growers, producers and wine drinkers alike are in a phase where there is a palpable longing for the good things from the past – yet we want to drink wines of the future. Wines from grapes that are healthy and grown without destroying the growers or nature itself. Wines that are made to bring out the best in the grapes instead of forcing the grapes to taste like something they are not. Wines that take advantage of technical progress and our greater understanding of what lies behind the process.
This is not just a wine geek thing. The idea of terroir wines that reflect the bounty of the vineyards where the grapes are grown is now widespread, even if English speakers still struggle to say the word. And once you talk terroir you have to talk grapes: which grapes grow best in each place and what has to be done to achieve that with commercial success.
It’s no great surprise to find that grapes which have been growing in a place for decades, even centuries, sometimes turn out to be the best.
We wine consumers still have to face marketing scams that are the flip side of honest efforts by winemakers to inform buyers and sell their wines. When organic wines became a hot item, wineries that had pooh-poohed the approach were suddenly claiming to offer these wines even though you can’t adapt vineyards overnight. Misrepresentation has always been part of the wine world, but the stakes are perhaps bigger today, with the world as any winery’s potential market. The temptation to be less than honest is thus perhaps greater, with so many buyers at a distance from vineyards.
All the more reason as a wine drinker to give the stage to wineries that are fighting the odds to give us something which relies deeply on the past for wines that are ushering in the future. It’s risky.
It’s not really a wine geek thing to want to know more about old grapes and wines that are being revived with 21st century knowledge. You don’t have to know much of anything about wine, and it doesn’t matter that you can’t pronounce or remember the name of the grape; just bring your thirst for good wines, an open mind (very important for anything unfamiliar – I tasted my first anchovy at age 20 and thought it was disgusting; I not only learned to like this Mediterranean delicacy but now seek it out), and curiosity to the table.
Let these new old wines take care of the rest.