The grape unknown

Small-batch, obscure wines are increasingly being championed by sommeliers – and often outperforming their better-known, more expensive peers. John Stimpfig reports. Illustration by Chris Burke

Image: Chris Burke

Recently, my wife and I enjoyed a memorable dinner at the Relais & Châteaux Summer Lodge Country House, deep in Hardy’s Dorset. My wife recalls it with particular fondness because she didn’t have to amuse herself for 10 minutes while I immersed myself in the wine list. For one night only, I had agreed to relinquish control of the wine selection to the restaurant’s award-winning head sommelier, Eric Zwiebel. “Surprise me,” I told him.

The many and varied wines that Zwiebel kept pouring, alongside chef Steven Titman’s sumptuous seven-course tasting menu, did that and more. Left to my own devices, I certainly wouldn’t have ventured so far off-piste. I knew just two of the wines. The first was a sublime and ethereal 2000 Egon-Müller Spätlese; the second Bruno Prats’ gloriously rich 2006 Chryseia, produced from old Touriga Nacional vines in the baking Douro Valley. None of the rest, however, had ever passed my lips.

One stand-out red was a hugely impressive young Tannat from Uruguay. Another was a beautifully balanced Chinese ice wine made from Vidal grapes by Château Changyu. Yet the wine that blew my socks off was Edi Kante’s 2006 white Vitovska from the Carso area of Friuli in northeast Italy. I’d heard of Vitovska, but never drunk it. “Mind-bogglingly good and utterly distinctive” was my hastily scribbled and woefully inadequate tasting note.

Hakkasan wine buyer Christine Parkinson
Hakkasan wine buyer Christine Parkinson | Image: Charlie Bibby

Zwiebel isn’t the only one taking this approach. Quirky indigenous grapes are cropping up in the cellars of other world-class restaurants, where top-flight sommeliers have turned their attention to a veritable cornucopia of exotic, ancient and frequently unheard-of varieties from almost every corner of the winemaking world.

And just for the record, we’re not talking about what are now relatively obvious choices, such as Spanish Albariño, Argentine Malbec or Austrian Grüner Veltliner. Instead, the new must-have wines are made from the likes of Ribolla Gialla, also from Friuli, Timorasso from Piedmont, Aidani from Greece, Kerner from Alto Adige, Areni from Armenia, and Poulsard, Romorantin and Trousseau from France. If you haven’t heard of, let alone tasted, all of the above, don’t worry – you’re in good company. Until relatively recently, neither had I.

Sommeliers clearly adore these idiosyncratic vines, which is why they are among the primary cheerleaders of this exciting vinous development. At Claude Bosi’s two-Michelin-starred Hibiscus in London, sommelier Bastien Ferreri now has around 40 wines created from “alternative” grape varieties. “Most of them are made in tiny quantities, and some might be available from just a single independent grower,” says the bright-eyed Ferreri, who lately added to his repertoire an obscure wine from Tenerife made from Listan Bianco. “I didn’t know the variety existed until recently, but it’s an incredibly flavoursome and food-friendly wine with a slightly salty character. It’s really fantastic.”

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What also fuels Ferreri’s enthusiasm are the stories behind these esoteric wines. “Often the growers have brought these ‘heirloom’ grape varieties back from the brink of extinction, so the wines are almost like children to them. Learning about their passion and commitment is genuinely inspiring and infectious. When I am talking to customers, this is partly what I want to convey.”

David Gleave MW, managing director of Liberty Wines, adds that these creations are the perfect product for the restaurant environment. “The whole point about them is that they’re so off the radar that they require individual recommendation, explanation and context. These wines are the sommelier’s ultimate hand-sell, primarily because you almost certainly won’t be able to find them anywhere else. But they shouldn’t just be there for novelty value either. They have to be good wines.”

This is, of course, a vital consideration. According to Ferreri, “None of my wines are on the list simply to show off or tick a box. They all justify their place on the grounds of quality, complexity and flavour – and food-matching ability. However, these wines aren’t for everyone. Some customers prefer to stay within their comfort zone, and you must always respect that.”

Greek Hatzidakis Winery Cuvée No 15, Assyrtiko grape, from £24, from Harvey Nichols
Greek Hatzidakis Winery Cuvée No 15, Assyrtiko grape, from £24, from Harvey Nichols

However, more and more restaurant-goers are willing to take a punt on such obscure offerings; at Hibiscus, for example, these wines are outperforming many of their better-known and more expensive peers from Bordeaux and Burgundy. “I think that’s partly because today’s adventurous diners want to make new discoveries when they’re eating out,” says Ferreri. “They are very open to the idea of trying these funky wines.”

At Hakkasan in west London’s Hanway Place, wine buyer Christine Parkinson introduced a dedicated section to the list a few years ago, titled “Curious vines; distinctive wines”. Its success led the restaurant to offer a much wider spectrum of alternative wines, including a Koshu from Japan, Furmint from Hungary, a blend of Bogazkere and Öküzgözü from Turkey, and Fernão Pires from Portugal. “Since we gave these wines their own slot on the list, sales have really taken off. And it’s not just in London. In our restaurants in San Francisco and New York we’re seeing the same willingness on the part of customers to try them and come back for more. It’s been a roaring success, which is why we’re looking to take on additional wines in the future.”

It’s a similar story at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in Knightsbridge, where head sommelier João Pires has recently introduced a smaller, regularly changing list of well-priced “Sommelier Recommendations”. It, too, is working well. In April, he sold 120 bottles of an unknown Uruguayan wine without breaking a sweat.

Chinese Château Changyu Golden Icewine Valley, made from Vidal grapes and served at Summer Lodge Country House
Chinese Château Changyu Golden Icewine Valley, made from Vidal grapes and served at Summer Lodge Country House

Isn’t it a bit of a risk? “Not at all,” asserts Ferreri, “because I am here to guide customers and I’d never serve a wine by the glass or bottle that I didn’t like or believe in. Moreover, if someone didn’t like the wine, I’d immediately take it away and replace it. So it’s a completely safe environment in which to experiment. As a diner, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

Of course, there’s another eminently good reason why these varieties are flying off restaurant wine lists. Times are tough and diners are instinctively looking for great value as well as great quality – all of which plays into the hands of these new, unheard-of labels that don’t have the hype and history to charge top-dollar prices.

At The River Café on the banks of the Thames, wine buyer and sommelier Emily O’Hare says she has “dozens of brilliant unknown wines made from rare varieties” on her all-Italian list, which she firmly believes are every bit as good as labels from regions with much more lauded reputations. For example, one of her most popular wines is a sumptuous Nerello Mascalese by Tenuta di Fessina from eastern Sicily. “If you love burgundy or barolo, you’ll adore this wine,” she promises. “And at £78 a bottle, it’s also a fraction of the price.” Consequently, she has found it is selling like hot cakes.

Portuguese Luis Pato Vinha Pan, Baga grape, £40, from Selfridges
Portuguese Luis Pato Vinha Pan, Baga grape, £40, from Selfridges

Although this vinous zeitgeist has taken off in restaurants, international sellers have been much more risk-averse. Not surprisingly, some traditional merchants, such as Farr Vintners, have turned their noses up at these newcomers, preferring to focus on a roster of more classical wines from long‑established producers. Corney & Barrow also has reservations. “I’m all for diversity and transmitting a wine’s unique terroir,” says MD Adam Brett-Smith, “but selling these very quirky grape varieties requires a lot of specialist marketing. I just don’t see them as having a wide enough appeal.”

Nevertheless, some big names are tentatively ringing the changes. Both The Wine Society and Justerini & Brooks have dipped their toes in the water and are showcasing several lesser-known varieties that weren’t on their lists a year or two ago. And with its gargantuan range, Hedonism Wines in Mayfair offers an exceptional, growing selection of these artisanal bottles, including the cultish Gravner from Friuli (from £64) and Cornelissen from Sicily (from £36). Other retailers are just starting to follow suit. The recently expanded Selfridges Wine Store now has quite a choice, such as Luis Pato’s Vinha Pan, made from the Baga grape, at £40. Even Harvey Nichols is getting in on the variety act, with a Japanese Koshu (from £27) and a Greek Assyrtiko (from £24).

Elsewhere, the reticence of mainstream wine shops and merchants leaves this niche sector wide open for a small number of “boutique” specialist retailers. In Manhattan, they include the exceptional Chambers Street Wines, which actively eschews the big Bordeaux châteaux in favour of showcasing largely “natural” wines from bijou, unheard-of producers in places such as the Jura or the Loire Valley. The same goes for the UK’s pioneering Caves de Pyrène and Highbury Vintners. In Australia, Melbourne’s unusually named Blackhearts & Sparrows is arguably the “go-to” merchant.

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The FT’s Jancis Robinson is delighted by this new underground wine movement. Last year she co-authored (together with Dr José Vouillamoz and Julia Harding MW) the multi-award-winning Wine Grapes (Allen Lane, £120), which weighs in at 3.1kg and lists no fewer than 1,368 commercial grape varieties currently in production somewhere in the world. “When we put the book together, we were certainly very aware of increasing interest worldwide in indigenous varieties,” she says.

But where did it come from in the first place? Many believe that the hitherto all-consuming diet of “me-too” wines made from France’s holy trinity (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay) had simply jaded people’s palates. Confident, sophisticated drinkers craved something new. But they also wanted wines that were authentically true to their terroir.

“Not that long ago, it was relatively easy to sell a Chardonnay or a Cabernet from Italy,” says Gleave, “but now it’s infinitely more fashionable to pick a native Sangiovese from Tuscany or a Vermentino from Sardinia. Moreover, serious growers love working with these traditional ‘heritage’ varieties. So it’s very exciting for everyone.”

Robinson agrees, but also points out that this trend goes beyond wine. “It’s in tune with our general desire for natural harmony, traceability, the ‘locovore’ movement and our increasing realisation of the importance of biodiversity.”

Others, including Gleave, believe that Robinson’s book has been a factor, too: “There’s no question that it has informed the debate and given these unknown grapes much greater credibility. Now you can look up a particular grape to get chapter and verse on where it comes from and how good it is.” Alternatively, though, you can simply ask a sommelier such as Eric Zwiebel to choose one for you.

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