asturias, chile, dão, itata, portugal, slovenia, spain -

always on the look-out for the unexpected

In a wine world dominated by the same grape varieties made in more or less the same way, it’s always exciting to discover something different. More unusual, esoteric varieties are often connected to the history of a region, made by experimental mavericks, and stand out for the individuality of the wines.

Take, for instance, Fran Ascencio and his Urogallo winery (named after a spectacular looking local bird) in Asturias in northern Spain. Asturias is a cool, wet, beautiful region, between Basque Country and Galicia, rising from the Atlantic Ocean into the Cantabrian mountains. It’s most famous for its cider as well as sheep and cheese, so it came as a surprise to me that quality wine is made in the region. But there are apparently a handful of producers doing just that. Fran is one of them, and after tasting one of his white wines I immediately got it into blackpoolmatt’s wine club. The vines are planted at high elevation (up to 700m) on steep slopes that have to be farmed by hand. This is clearly a labour of love.

The wine featured in the club is called "La Fanfarria" and is a blend of 60% Albarín Blanco and 40% Albillo. The former is only found in Asturias, and there are only around 50ha of plantings. It’s a variety with high acidity and floral, spicy aromas. Albillo is a bit more widely planted, extending south to Castilla y Léon and Ribera del Duero, producing softer, more aromatic wines. This is a wine which has the acidity one would expect from a cool region, yet with a surprising richness too: when wine is made from local grape varieties which over time have adapted to the growing conditions the result is a balanced, complex, concentrated, expressive, and unique wine.

In  Dão, an inland region in Portugal, wines are almost always made from grape varieties local to the area which have adapted to the warm, continental, and dry growing conditions over time. Another wine newly featured in blackpoolmatt's wine club is by a co-operative, Adega de Penalva. It's unusual for a co-op to make good wine, let alone an experimental one. As the name of the wine "Maceration" indicates, it's an orange wine made with 20-days skin contact. The wine is made from three local varieties—Cerceal Branco, Encruzado, and Malvasia—and has a wonderful freshness despite coming from a warm climate and the phenolic bitterness that comes from skin contact.

unexpected wines

But grape varieties planted in historic regions are not always local. Another new wine in blackpoolmatt’s wine club comes from northern Slovenia, a Sauvignon Blanc made by Domaine Ciringa. The vineyard is right on the Austrian border; in fact, the border between the two countries runs through the middle of the vineyard. In the late 1950s, the Tement family planted on the Austrian side of the border in the Styria region; by 1991 their Sauvignon Blanc had been declared the best in the world. In 2005, grandson Armint took over and created a new winery on the Slovenian side of the vineyard. The Sauvignon is fantastic: fuller-bodied than the Loire, but not as herbaceous as New Zealand. 

Moving away from Europe to Chile, there’s País which was brought to South America by Spanish missionaries (in California, it’s called Mission, in Argentina Criolla Chica). The variety is often high yielding and produces simple wines, but when the vines are old (and in Chile there are vines more than 200 years old), the wines have much more complexity. Domino del Cuarzo is a new winery, the first vintage 2019, but there’s a lot of experience behind the project. The owner and winemaker, Felipe Ramirez, has been studying and making wine since the 2000s; he has established this project in Itata with the help of friend and now neighbor Pedro Parra; he is also a winemaker in Oregon at Rose and Arrow, switching from hemisphere to hemisphere. The 2020 País from the small vineyard of Ñinas is the second vintage and is so crunchy, fruity, and aromatic. The vines were planted in 1890: all good things come to those who wait. 

Unknown grape varieties from an unknown wine region in Spain; an orange wine made by a co-operative in Portugal; an internationally known variety from a part of Slovenia that is almost Austria; old vines from the deepest south of Chile by a winemaker based in Oregon. When tasting wine, expect and appreciate the unexpected.