It's a truth as stark as a cabernet stain on a white tablecloth: Wine quality is at an all-time high. Technology, advanced vineyard practices and global competition have raised the bar dramatically over the past half-century. But is wine getting more interesting? I suspect some of you would answer in the negative.
Depending on the drinker, "good" and "interesting" can mean different things. If you're the sort who decries the dominance of so-called international-style wines, you'll appreciate the distinction. Around the world, producers have grown enamoured with a common formula. They choose from a handful of popular grapes, such as merlot and chardonnay, apply industrial yeast strains and other cellar tricks to get the texture and nuances they want, then lavish the fermented juice with the smooth vanilla essence of new Frenchoak barrels. Great taste, perhaps, but if a California merlot is indistinguishable from, say, an Australian or Okanagan merlot, is it "interesting"?
Detractors of the melting-pot global style found plenty of ammunition in Mondovino , a 2004 documentary by director Jonathan Nossiter. Nominated for a Palme d'Or at Cannes, the movie depicts a pastoral world of old-school European farmers marginalized by the homogenizing forces of corporations and consultants. In Nossiter's pessimistic panorama, idiosyncratic wines that convey a sense of place – what the French call terroir – are going the way of drive-in theatres.
I'm not so sure. One of Mondovino's heroes, Battista Columbu, delivers a melancholy defence of his "ethical commitment" to grow an underappreciated grape, malvasia di bosa, on the Italian island of Sardinia. The implication: local, indigenous varieties are under assault. And yet the opposite is true, a point made in the excellent, authoritative new book Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, the estimable British wine writer, with co-authors Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz.
General interest in indigenous vines is "unparalleled in the history of wine," they write. "In Italy alone, where we reckon there are currently about 380 different varieties responsible for wine in commercial circulation, there are initiatives all over the country to save from extinction and recuperate historic vine varieties that until recently have been known to perhaps only one or two farmers." Much the same is happening throughout Europe, they add, and "the range of varieties on offer is immeasurably wider than it was 15 or even 10 years ago."
Last week's Vintages release in Ontario liquor stores features several premium Italian wines made from grapes that would, indeed, have remained local curiosities were it not for consumers' increasingly adventurous palates – gaglioppo, lacrima di morro, mantonico and perricone, to name four. They may not be precisionengineered 95-point merlots, but they are, in a word, interesting.
Tabarrini Colle Grimaldesco Montefalco Sagrantino 2007 (Italy)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $48.95 Sagrantino, an ancient red variety mainly confined to the area around Montefalco in the northern region of Umbria, had virtually disappeared by the 1960s. Marco Caprai, of the Arnaldo– Caprai winery, led the renaissance, and now the grape is a signature of many producers in the zone. A shrinking violet it's not. Big flavour and big tannins are its trademarks. With Tabarrini's Colle Grimaldesco you can expect big alcohol, too – as in a thundering 17 per cent. This monster, available in limited quantities in select Ontario Vintages stores, suggests a cross between zinfandel and amarone, with syrupy richness, a whisper of raisin, lively spice and solid tannic backbone. The alcohol does, alas, peek through, a minor drawback to an otherwise superb wine. It needs rich food, such as braised beef short ribs or a cheese board.
Caruso & Minini Sachia Perricone 2010 (Italy)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $13.95 Caruso & Minini is based in Marsala, the town on Sicily's west coast known for the eponymous fortified wine. But the winery specializes in dry table wines, among them this red based on perricone, a local variety whose appearance sometimes causes it to be mistaken for barbera or sangiovese. This bottling tastes like a cross between high-acid barbera and jammy shiraz, with notes of cherry and plum. Technically dry, it registers as vaguely sweet. Try it with grilled pork or lamb.
Selvanova Vigna Antica Aglianico 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $15.95 Aglianico is considered by many to be the noblest of southern Italy's red grapes, though it was virtually unheard of in North America 20 years ago. Thanks to the attention of such globally influential critics as Robert Parker, it is enjoying a time in the spotlight. This one may not be as cellar-worthy as the best, but it is seductive. Full-bodied and initially sweet, it follows through with hints of roasted game, herbs, smoke and incense, tucked in on the finish by crisp acidity and tannins. Try it with roast beef or roast lamb.
Jerzu Chuerra Riserva Cannonau di Sardegna 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $15.95 Cannonau might be described as a global variety. Extensively planted in France and Australia, where it is known as grenache, it is widely thought to have originated in Spain, where it goes by the name garnacha. Growers in Sardinia would put up a good argument, though, citing centuries-old references to the grape on the Italian island. No matter. Cannonau has a special charm that could hardly be described as common. This bargain from Antichi Poderi Jerzu, a co-operative, shows supple strawberrylike fruit on a medium-full-bodied frame, with baking spices in the background. Suitable for just about any red meat.
Lucchetti Lacrima di Morro d'Alba 2011 (Italy)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $17.95 The "Alba" here is not to be confused with the northern Piedmontese town associated with Barolo and white truffles. Morro d'Alba is a town in the Marche region, the hamstring of the Italian boot. According to the book Wine Grapes, co-authored by Jancis Robinson, lacrima do morro d'alba was near extinction in 1985, when the vine's total plantings measured just 2.5 acres. By 2000, it had expanded to 252 acres. This is an usual and tantalizingly offbeat red, medium-bodied with scents of strawberry and talcum powder. On the palate, it delivers additional notes of chewy cherry, herbs and cracked pepper. Baked ham would be a fine match.
Enotria Ciro Rosso Classico 2010 (Italy)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $13.95
Ciro is a district of the southern Calabria region, where the red gaglioppo grape plays a starring role. Sometimes tannic and strong, the variety shows a friendlier face here, with moderate astringency and 13-per-cent alcohol. Medium-fullbodied, it offers up candied berry, vanilla and an earthy-leathery nuance. A good partner for cured meats.
Apollonio Copertino Rosso 2007 (Italy)
SCORE: 83 PRICE: $16.95
Calling all prune-juice lovers: Here's your wine. A blend of negroamaro, montepulciano and malvasia nera from the southern Puglia region, this is one ripe, sunny red. Prune and raisin lead the parade, with tobacco and a strong oxidative note not far behind. It is a little too ripe for me, frankly, but I suspect some drinkers would take a shine to it. I would serve it with semi-firm cheeses. $21.99 in B.C.