As a wine geek/wine blogger/wino, one of the questions I often get from my non-geek friends is what I mean when I say a wine is “varietally correct”. It often comes up when someone brings over a wine to our house that they wish our opinion on. Often times the wine is perfect for enjoying in one another’s company, yet nothing to make me jump up and down with vinous joy! I often will, out of habit, mention that the wine is varietally correct when it’s a single varietal bottling, such as a Garnacha from the Priorat. If I mention the varietal correctness, I’m referring to the fact that the wine exhibits all the characteristics of a Garnacha made in the Priorat. In this case, there would be minerality combined with deep, rich, red fruits and black pepper notes. These are the wines I like to turn to when teaching or doing a seminar, as they are the wines that help people to learn a region’s style and tipicity.
Today, however, I would like to talk about the other side of varietal correction, that which is varietally incorrect, inspired by a wine I tasted and an article I read recently. Last week, while visiting with the owner and viticulturist of a cava house, we were given the opportunity to taste both an example of his cavas and of his still wines. Although his cavas were notable, the Avi Ton, a monovarietal wine made with 100% Xarel.lo, was for me exceptional and it turned out possessed a heritage uniquely tied to the property. The story goes that the owner discovered that while the vines located in one part of his property were 100% Xarel.lo, they turn out to be a unique clone unique to their property. You see, traditionally, Xarel.lo is known for its acidity and structure that forms the backbone of the Cava trinity: Parellada, Macabeo and Xarel.lo. And while some have tried to make single varietal wines from this grape, barring a few notable successes, most find that the wines created are anything but interesting. Varietally correct wine made from Xarel.lo often times is too acidic and lacking any real fruit character to balance out the body, but Avi Ton was different.
The name, Avi Ton, is derived from winemaker’s grandfather, Antonio Massana Noya. As the wine is made from 60+ old vines, they consider them “grandfather vines”, and as Avi in Catalan means grandfather, they used this and the nickname for Antonio – Toni to create the name. The wine is nothing like any other I have ever had – a dramatic and bold statement, but one I feel safe in making. When poured, nothing in particular stood out as far as color or the viscosity. What appeared to be a light, golden color, didn’t make me think twice as to its uniqueness. That changed, abruptly, when my nose entered the glass and I was met with aromas I didn’t expect. Creamy vanilla and exotic lychee made me wonder if I wasn’t smelling Gewurztraminer or Moscatel; followed by a dusty minerality, which I could never fully grasp as I searched for something recognizable. I took a sip, and I’m sure my face showed confusion as I tried again to understand what was going on. Sawdust, still floating in my dad’s wood shop came to mind at first, but this quickly blended with notes of clove and lemon balm. I’ve drank a lot of Xarel.los in my life, but this was all together different, and I was very much enjoying the experience. Made in very limited quantities, the wine is said to be primarily exported to the Netherlands where they can’t seem to get enough of it.
Eudald is fully aware that he has something special in this bottle. He also knows that the fact it exists is a bit of mystery, for this the wine is all the more magical, unexpected, and at its heart, embodies the reason that I fell in love with wine in the first place: the unexpected.
So I come back to the title of this post, this wine was varietally incorrect at least according to my wine experienece and yet quite tasty. In life, I look for the varietally incorrect wines, always hoping to find the unexpected in my glass. I love to find the winemaker who is trying to push the envelop or revive the lost varietal so as to find something new and create something fun. This is why this article scares me. Evidently, they have mapped the genome of Pinot Noir. Claims are now being made that with this new knowledge, genetically enhanced PN could be produced to reduce the chance of rot or other diseases, thus lowering the cost of making wine from it. This scares me, because although they don’t mention it, the thruth is that the flavors could also be manipulated creating over time a wine that claims to be Pinot Noir with “twice the strawberries” or “double the fruit!” My fear isn’t that the wines will kill me from mutant genes or that the wines will be crafted to meet market demand. What concerns me is the loss of magic, and mystery, and the fun of not knowing what to expect. I know this is not what a producer in the world market wants to hear. For them, knowing they will have a good product every year and that is will taste the same, is for them, safety and the promise of a steady paycheck. Can’t blame ’em…But I don’t have to like it.
So find yourself a “varietally incorrect” wine and let us know about it.