For the novice wine drinker, the world of wine can be quite a daunting place. With all the lingo and jargon like tannins, blanc de noir and terroir, it can be as confusing as learning a new language. And then we haven’t even talked about the wines themselves yet. The endless amounts of cultivars out there might make it seem like an impossible task to familiarise yourself with them. But, as with learning a new language, all it takes is practice, practice and more practice! As I have written a previous blog about the most common wine cultivars in South Africa (see http://www.newworldwinemaker.com/2017/01/an-easy-guide-to-cultivar-identification/ ), I thought it would be good to tell you a bit more about the lesser known cultivars that you might stumble upon at one of our amazing wine farms. And once again, the pronunciation of the names will also take practice, practice, practice.
This white grape variety has its origins in France, but its popularity here in SA has grown substantially over the last couple of years. The wines made from this cultivar can be slightly on the heavier side of the white wine spectrum. It leans more towards the creaminess of a Chardonnay than the crisp of a Sauvignon blanc, although it can be made in both a creamy and a fruitier style. The goldish colour of this wine is reminiscent of autumn sunsets and that happens to be the perfect time to enjoy this wine (according to me, at least). Aromas of tropical fruits, rose petals and orange blossoms fill your nose when you swirl the golden liquid in your glass and you might experience flavours of ripe peaches, mango or honeysuckle when you take a sip. These grapes are often used in blends to compliment other wines, but it is truly remarkable when it shines on its own.
This very underappreciated white grape is also originally from France, but it was one of the very first grape varieties to make its way to the Cape with the settlers. At one stage, almost 90% of South Africa’s vineyards were planted under Sémillon. But for some, mysterious reason, its popularity declined so much that it is hardly a speck on our statistics now. Some smart people in the industry believe that it might be because of its similarities to Chardonnay and that the old golden girl herself, just out competed the more modest and delicate Sémillon. Much like Chardonnay and Viognier, this cultivar produces wines that are full-bodied and flavoursome, but the flavours you might experience are on the fresher, fruitier side. Green apple, lemon and papaya are just some of these delectable flavours commonly described for these wines. Like Sauvignon blanc, the flavours and also mouth-feel of the wine is determined by the climate the grapes are grown under, i.e. a warm climate or a cool climate. Cool climate Sémillon tends to be more fresh, fruity and crisp, whereas Sémillon from hotter regions are a bit heavier with a creamy or buttery profile. This is the style most commonly found in SA. Its susceptibility to noble rot also makes it a great cultivar to use for dessert wines, like the famous Sauternes from France.
Pinot gris (“pee-noh-gree”)
Although many people believe this cultivar originated in Italy, it too is actually from France. It is also known as Pinot grigio (“pee-noh-gree-joe”) in Italy, where it is one of the most adored wine grape varieties. Another interesting thing about this wine is that it is a white wine made from grey-red grapes. The wines made from these grapes are usually dry, crisp and fresh with excellent acidity. The flavours range from lemon-lime, green apple and nectarines, to riper styles of almonds and honeysuckle. These wines have been cast in the shadows by many wine critics for being “too simple”, but that is mostly because its popularity in Italy and America has led to the production of cheaper, mass produced wines of poorer quality. Luckily for us, we have been blessed with some very good Pinot gris from our own shores so keep a look out next time when you are in the supermarket.
Although this cultivar is also from (you guessed it) France, you will not find many single cultivar Malbec wines in its country of origin. Instead, it is included as one of the five red grape varieties that are used to make Bordeaux style blends (the others are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Merlot noir and Petit Verdot). It did however, make a name for itself in the Mendoza region of Argentina in the 1800’s and to this day it is known as the home of Malbec wines. The wines that are produced from these grapes are a deep, purple-red colour and have fruity flavours that are dependant of the climate the grapes ripened in. Cooler climates will be more likely to produce wines with flavours of red fruits like cherries, raspberries and pomegranate, whereas warm climates might lead to the development of plum flavours, or blackcurrant. Other flavours that you might pick up on are tobacco, leather, chocolate, coffee and black pepper. Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec does not have a long finish (astringent aftertaste), so it pairs very well with lean red meats. Can anyone say flame grilled ostrich burger and a big glass of Malbec? Yes, please!
This medium-bodied red wine has recently become one of my favourites! Originally from France, where it is mostly grown in the Southern parts as a blending wine, this variety was under scrutiny for a long time, because like Sémillon, it used to have a bad reputation for being the main ingredient in some very badly produced bulk wines. But winemakers have gone back to some of the very old Carignan vines and realised that with time, these vines produced grapes of greater and greater quality- of course leading to better wines. Carignan is almost synonymous with fruit flavours like raspberries and cranberries. Nuances of baking spices, including cinnamon, nutmeg and star-anise are just some of the reasons why this wine is considered to be a favourite at Thanksgiving dinners in the United States. This is also why Carignan is famously known as “the food wine”. Its fruity, yet savoury flavours, medium-body and less bitter tannins allows it to compliment lighter dishes like turkey or duck, while it can also stand up to a hearty beef brisket. And although there aren’t many wineries in South Africa that produce Carignan, the ones that do, usually do it really well.
I hope this will inspire you to be a little adventurous when you are at your next wine tasting or just buying wine in the supermarket. There are many more interesting and exciting wine cultivars out there and they are all worth a try- at least once! And as they say; he who dares, win(e)s.