Climate change has affected all areas of agriculture and we notice this especially in viticulture with its attention to detail and its concentration of small parcels of vines in comparison to large prairies of wheat. Throughout the world winemakers have had to battle over the last few years with increased alcohol levels, sunburnt grapes, premature withering of vine leaves and a host of dramatic weather patterns from late frosts, hailstorms and summer droughts brought on by global warming.
In the torrid plains of La Mancha, producers are searching out traditional vines planted higher up the mountains and resistant to drought which were abandoned as being too labour intensive in the post war period. A stunning example are the Ulterior wines from Bodegas Verum. Another exciting project in Spain is the Torres family from Catalonia, researching forgotten vines (they call them “ancestrals”) and growing them in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Altitude is a very effective weapon against global warming. Their “Forcada” white wine is a great favourite of mine.
The appreciation for old varietals has naturally led to the discovery of old, abandoned vines. There is nothing more exciting than finding a patch of vines hidden under the undergrowth or buried on crumbling terraces. It takes a great deal of back breaking and expensive labour to bring these parcels back to life, but the rewards are enormous. Old vines, because of their deep root systems and what I rather whimsically call their memory of experience, withstand the excesses of climate change quite well and often give the most energizing intensity and freshness to their wines which you feel more as structure than as acidity when you taste them. Old vines are a flexible notion where rather ridiculously a vine which is over 35 years old qualifies as a senior. For me, 50 years old is a bare minimum and you only have to taste the Vieilles Vignes Roussanne from Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in France (over 75 years old) to see what I mean about the extraordinary vibrance that runs through an old vine.
The one wine trend which has really got me excited over the last couple of years is the return to indigenous grape varieties. A decade or so ago, we would find grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay planted everywhere, even in the hottest of wine regions. Now, all over Europe, I am tasting and discovering grape types that I had not heard of before and which are becoming, if not household names, then at least appearing on interesting wine lists.
I place the resurgence of the grapes to the moment when the wonderful tome WINE GRAPES written by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz was published in 2012 promising to be the complete guide to 1 368 vine varieties. I cannot begin to tell you how many hours of research went into this work. For me it marked the end of the ubiquitous reign of international grape varieties and the nascent delight in discovering, appreciating and finally recognizing varieties such as Nero d’Avola (Sicily) Saperavi (Georgia), Humagne (Switzerland) and Mencia (Spain) to cite a few examples.
Several of these grapes have only become known as the wines they produce find homes on international markets. Yet others have been rediscovered. All over the world there are moves to save old varieties from extinction or to recuperate varieties that had been known to only a handful of locals. But before one can even think of planting a new vineyard with them, the vines need to be propagated by taking cuttings and the differences of each variety have to be noted. The vines used to make wines belong mainly to the vitis vinifera species which means “wine-bearing grape” and can be divided further into vinifera and silvestris; the latter, as its name suggests, being a wilder, more natural vine found growing in woods, riverbanks and hillsides. Then, each species has different variances, called clones, which can play a very important role in the future of that specific vine and can take years of painstaking research to identify. A vine nursery is especially looking out for the nascent vine’s ability to resist viruses and pests, be low yielding and be resistant to drought.
My love affair with Grenache and Nerello Mascalese, both later ripening, light-coloured, softly tannic and red fruited grape varieties has been kindled by the elegance and purity of the wines they produce in the hot, dry climates whether in the Castilla or Priorat for Garnacha (Spanish word for Grenache) or the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily for Nerello Mascalese. I have been blown away by the beautiful, silky character and the subtleties of grape, soil, climate and winemaking that shade and highlight their personalities. These grapes show how well they can resist climate change. We have come a long way since the dark, inky monsters bottled in heavy glass bottles and tasting of oak and extraction! Whether this has to do with Generation Xers, the Covid provoked need for kinder, gentler, purer comestibles or a reaction to global warming, I don’t know but, in our opinion, it is a trend that we at Thienpont Wine heartily endorse.
If you are a wine lover and curious by nature, you should be paying attention to these wines. There is a real passion developing for them and with this in mind over the last couple of years, Alexander and I have been slowly assembling a small quantity of fascinating wines from France, Italy and Spain which we think represents perfectly these heritage vines. It also helps that the wine growers are often young, idealistic and immensely talented. Their tastes lead us away from the rich, oaky wines that their elders were tempted to make a generation ago. Their esthetic is for wines made in concrete, amphora or clay with a benign passage in oak; more to import gentle oxygen than wood flavours to their fruit.
You should expect to drink these wines carefully, pensively, slowly giving into the flavours that unfurl. Several of them have only minimum sulphur in them so will not last very long when the bottle is open; sulphur’s chief role is to protect a wine from the negative effects of oxygen. We have put together a list of some of these extraordinary wines. You might find some of these elsewhere if you search hard, but we would be surprised if you ever find such a rich combination of flavour and talent and originality. We have organized the wines that we have in tiny quantities (they come out of our private cellar) into selections of three or four bottles. Where we have better stocks, we have organised mixed cases of several bottles. We have had great fun putting this offer together and we are so happy and proud to share it with our wine club members. Another great advantage is that for every sales of €100,00, Thienpont Wine will donate €5,00 in order to plant a tree and support research for ARBORETUMS, a research project by the Royal Belgian Forestry Association in order to preserve our Belgian forests.
© Fiona Morrison M.W.
Photo Credit banner: Certified Heritage Vineyards - Old vine during Winter in Yepes, Toledo