Tuesday, February 7, 2012

WINE STUDY: Grape Characteristics (3)

Appearance, aromatics and flavor characteristics of any wine are assessed by each candidate of the upcoming Wine Educators Certification exam. By virtue of this process, tasters will be challenged to identify the dominant grape varietal of the wine, and in a separate exam, any of its potentially numerous faults that cause a wine to be out of balance.  As our exploration of global grape varieties continues, we arrive at a place where the grape names are not as familiar, but remain a principally important commodity not only to their individual international localities, but also to any aspiring wine educator. Fortunately for domestic consumers, these varieties can represent some of the greatest quality to price values on the broad, sometimes obscure, wine planet. Let's raise our glasses to some of the role players.

Pinot Blanc(Pinot Bianco, Weissburgunder) offers fruity aromas of apple, citrus and flowers while being typically medium to full bodied.  It's character is not unlike Chardonnay, which is understandable as they are both have history in Burgundy and may be genetic mutations of the same variety: Pinot Noir. Full bodied examples can be found most notably in Alsace and northern Italy, whereas in Germany or Austria the grape is shown as a medium bodied varietal where it can be found in stylings that are either dry or slightly sweet.
Semillon, easily cultivated and of prolific yields,  is a white grape distinguished by being modestly low in acid for such an early ripening variety.  Although easily sunburned, this thin skinned grape of almost oily texture is typically susceptible to Bortrytis cineria or noble rot fungus, and thus a principal partner in some of the world's greatest sweet wines. It can't be a Sauternes or a Barsac without Semillion in the blend. When grown as representative, this rich grape variety can show mineral elements, with rich and complex flavor notes of citrus, stone fruits and apples. Today, there are some terrific examples of the unique character of this grape in balance with Australia's Chardonnay.
Noble Rot fungus

Torrantes is an aromatic grape variety that typically is floral-citrus in its aroma, and is the principal white wine grape of long-isolated Argentina. On the palate it tends to be bright and crisp with good acid, flavor notes of flowers, stone fruit(like peach, apricot) and citrus. This perfumed variety can offer tropical fruit and distinctive kumquat flavors, and is a good foil for the regions staple chimichurri sauces. Today, most quality Torrantes wines are value priced and becoming more widely available throughout our marketplace 
Trebbiano(Ugni Blanc) is among the most widely planted wine grapes in the world! This high yield grape is generally undistinguished, but offers usually high acid to carry its fresh fruit flavors. Such 'fresh' characteristics allow Trebbiano to be very popular in its native Italy where it is broadly planted, and is principally important in the production of French distilled Cognac, Armagnac and even industrial alcohols. With its tough skins, it is easy to grow, and can offer subtle citrus and apple aromas/flavors, and finds itself typically blended with other white grape varieties.
Serralunga de Alba, Piedmont, Italy

Barbera is widely planted in its native Piedmont region of hilly northern Italy, where it grows vigorously, offering opaque skinned grapes of relatively low acidity. In its youth, it can be intensely aromatic, offering a nose of red and black berries. As it matures losing its freshness, the flavor notes become more of stewed or pruned vine fruits with the oak spice of its barreling becoming increasingly prominent.As the most widely planted and consumed grape of its native region, it is a terrific food wine for regional cuisine.
Gamay, an old cultivar in its native eastern France, is a purplish low tannin grape with naturally high acidity and typically high yields. Grown in the right soils, it can become very Pinot-like in the best growing years. Outlawed in Burgundy in 1395, it continued to prosper to the south in Beaujolais, as well as in the Loire Valley prior to becoming a world traveler. As an early ripen-er, the best of it today produces lighter, fruity wines with bright aromas of sour cherries, strawberry and even banana. On the palate, flavors of raspberry, dried berry and orange peel can be balanced with a hint of chalk, and rarely a dominant trace of oak.
Post-veraison Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo, may take its name for the Piedmont term for fog, 'nebbia'. In its youth, this high extract dark variety can produce light wines that are heavily tannic.  In fact this aromatic and structured native, with its aromas of tar, truffles and violets, is among the most tannic of all grape varieties.  It necessitates years of aging to expose its charms; offering herbal and woodsy notes of high acid red raspberry, ripe prunes and bitter chocolate. Generally producing wines of higher alcohol, this is one of the few of the world's noble varieties that has not successfully gone international.
Tempranillo (Cencibel, Tinta Roriz) has the distinction of being the Spanish 'noble' grape, getting its name from 'temprano', as in early to ripen. Here too, is another important grape that has not traveled auspiciously with any of the achievements it earns in its native vineyards. Across northern Spain it produces early ripening, thick skinned dark clusters that offer a woodsy and dusty character.  It can be 'fruit challenged' in the bottle, offering lean aromas of cherries, strawberries, leather, and road dust. Typically bush trained, it is a moderately tannic high pigment grape variety that also happens to be low in acid. As a result, its best examples tend to be blended with brighter varieties, producing more faint berry notes as well as increasingly earthy with advancing age.

Any of these or other grape varieties will stand ceremoniously in front of the aspiring wine educator on a placemat field of white paper. The best of these applicants will successfully identify principal grape varieties and major production regions using deductive reasoning from all the wine grape knowledge they have accumulated. They will ask themselves why that wine sample is not a Barolo from the Nebbiolo grape, but rather a Syrah. Or perhaps they will deduce that the white wine sample is a Sauvignon Blanc and not a Torrantes from the Salta region. In a separate testing, altered faults and imbalances of the same wine must be identified from the eight(8) similar wines that are displayed in front of them. An ability to recognize concentrated traits of sulfur dioxide or excessive tannin will serve the aspiring wine educator well in this portion of the faults exam. Only one sample in this field, however, will match the control sample, but which one?  For the successful student such questions will have the foundations of their answers in dedicated wine study. It probably doesn't hurt to also know as many grape variety characteristics as possible.

"Best while you have it to use your breath,
  for there is no drinking after death"

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