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In Praise of 'Country' Wines
By Andrew Holod
Feb 2, 2024
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"But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread"

--"Address to a Haggis"
Robert Burns, poet laureate of Scotland

Robert Burns was a Scottish poet who wrote in both English and Scots and may best be known for writing Auld Lang Syne, which many sing at the new year.  With my column being posted near his January 25th birth anniversary, which is often celebrated with a Burn's Night Supper featuring numerous toasts, scotch whiskey and a haggis.  I was inspired by that regional dish and its rustic connotation.  I find wines which may have similar rustic connotations particularly interesting. 

I define these rustic, “country” wines as wines from lesser-known regions which have either faded from popularity or rarely found commercial success outside of local environs.  Their producers usually eschew (or can’t afford) technical additions such as cultured yeast, aging in new oak barrels, and would almost never consider the use of additives such as powdered tannins, oak blocks/staves or Mega Purple.  As such they represent, for me, authentic expressions of their locale, true to the character of their local grape varieties.

“Country” wines offer a wide range of benefits to you as the consumer.  They tend to offer tremendously food-friendly styles, matching not just unique local dishes but foods you might actually make and eat as well.  The wines provide exceptional value allowing you to buy world-class wines at working person’s prices.  Finally, there is amazing variety in these lesser-known wines.

Pairing wine with food, while occasionally confounding, can be one of life’s great pleasures.  I find that these “country” wines usually elevate the flavors on the plate.  As such the wines are not only food-friendly, they are flavor-enhancing and experience elevating.  A large part of this dynamic is the structural component of these wines.  They share structural similarities, regardless of geographic origin, featuring reserved fruit notes, higher acids, moderate body, and higher than average tannins, in the reds.  I believe it is the higher acid in particular which drives flavors on the palate, stimulating salivation which increases the amount of digestive enzymes in the mouth and distributes flavors more broadly on the tongue.

Let’s start with Muscadet, a dry, lower alcohol white wine made from Melon grapes grown at the western end of the Loire valley of France.  While not unknown, it is probably less well-known than either Chenin Blanc-based Vouvray or Sauvignon Blanc-based Sancerre.  Muscadet is often described as neutral (or “reserved” in aroma and flavor), and sees extended aging on lees to give additional body and freshness to the finished wine while lending a savory/yeasty aroma.  But pair one of these crisp, unoaked whites with a plate of chilled, briney, seaweed-scented oysters and you’ll find an explosion of fruit in the wine.  If you are doubtful of oysters, this can still scale for you.  Try the same wine with sushi or any dish with roasted nori seaweed and you’ll likely have a similar experience. 

While you may never have even considered drinking a sparkling red wine, the blended wines grown on the Gragnano peninsula south of Naples and made of Piedirosso, Aglianico and a range of other supporting grapes, might change your mind.  This wine is usually matched to Neapolitan style pizza, with its blistered and partially charred crust.  These opaque, black-purple wines show a nearly exaggerated grape-candy fruitiness in the aroma, which is importantly underlain with a smoky, mineral character from the volcanic soils the grapes are grown in.  The smokiness of the wine and flavors of the charred pizza crust work well together.  These wines often have a bit of residual sugar as well as considerable tannins.  You don’t have a 1700 degree pizza oven at home, no problem, as this combination of aromas and texture can work well with a range of cured meats or even with the spice and melted cheese of a seven layer dip.

Early in my wine career, I was lucky enough to travel with a French wine importer for a portion of his annual buying trip.  There were several memorable experiences, but one particular pairing still stands out in my memory after more than 20 years.  We were in Corbieres, in the Languedoc of France and had a simple lunch with the winemaker.  A bowl of Lucques olives were on the table which we paired with the producer’s Grenache Blanc.  The olives have a mild, buttery and slightly creamy quality.  The wine offers subtle, arboreal aromas of springtime tree blossoms, a whiff of almond nuttiness, perfumed pears and a creamy texture that met and elevated the olives.  While freshly cured Luqcues are very difficult to find in the US, and Corbieres whites not much easier to find, you could riff on my experience by pairing a white Côtes-du-Rhône wine with a green goddess dressed salad or a bowl of guacamole and chips.  All of these pairings match a creamy mouth-filling texture contrasted with a bit of brine, spice or fruity acidity from the wine.

Besides elevating the flavors on your plate and in your mouth, “country” wines represent excellent value, over delivering flavor for the prices they command.  One of my favorites is Cave Verdier Logel in the tiny Appellation de Controlee Cotes de Forez located at the head of the Loire valley.  The region is about 50 miles from Beaujolias and features the same grape, Gamay.  But while it is on the Loire it is also only about 25 miles away from St.  Joseph in the northern Rhone valley, which is regarded as the much “better” wine by most who know both regions.  Verdier-Logel’s wines feature Gamay grown on granitic sandy soils and often use partial carbonic-maceration to emphasize freshness and bright fruit character in the finished wine.  

Let’s consider the value of wines from nearby regions.  For comparison, Burgundy France has around 28,000 hectares of vineyards and 550 hectares of Grand Cru vineyards.  The best Grand Cru wines from the region are frankly unaffordable to regular wine drinkers with Domaine la Romannee Conti’s least expensive Grand Cru Pinot Noir, Echezeaux, going for more than $2000 per bottle.  That’s not a fair comparison you argue?  Take Beaujolais with its 18,000 hectares of vines, 1,090 of which make up the Morgon Cru.  Beaujolais is perhaps the region best known for Gamay based wines and Morgon known for producing the longest lived and most coveted examples.  Jean Foillard’s Morgon Cuvée 3.14 starts around $150 a bottle.  How about my recommendation?  Cotes de Forez has a scant 200 hectares planted to vines, down from around 5,000 in the 1930s.  Verdier-Logel more expensive Volcanique bottling retails in the mid $20s and all three of the wines from this producer sell between the upper teens and mid $20s.  While the Volcanique bottling can’t match DRC Echezeaux’s pedigree, history, complexity, ability to age or potential to increase in value, I would argue that for most any regular wine drinking night you might get nearly as much joy by saving $125 or $1975 and enjoying one of the best Côtes de Forez wines available.

The range of variety I referred to earlier in reference to “country” wines manifests in two key ways.  The first is the breadth of flavor available from these lesser-known grapes.  WIth the big 5 grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc) dominating the marketplace, there is a relatively limited range of aromas and flavors to be experienced.  For sure there is a range in Chardonnay from chalky, lean Chabils to tropical, creamy new world versions.  Cabernet Sauvignon has a range too, yielding herbal, tobacco and gravel scented Medoc or luscious blackberry, currant and dark chocolate scented California versions.  Referring back to one of my earlier columns, where I wrote about thinking about a wine as a matrix with a certain range of aromas, flavors, and structure, each of the “major” grapes vary over a certain range.  However, by tasting a handful of wine made from the same variety you can fathom the limits of a variety’s expression.  Nonetheless there is a greater range of flavors to experience among the 1,368 "important" wine grapes of Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz’s amazing Wine Grapes book.

“Country” wines will expose you to unique flavors and aromas.  I can think of a handful of examples that read like alternate universe versions of one another.  If Pinot Noir is one of your favorite grapes, you can flip to the next nearest universe and try a Gamay.  Slide a little longer along that string of theoretical physics and try a Nebbiolo from the Piedmont in Italy.  Next door is Nebbiolo’s southern cousin Aglianico.  And further yet are Xinomavro from Noussa in Greece and Blaufrankish from Austria.  All of these wine’s structures exist in some sort of madman’s Venn diagram with certain bits of each overlapping.  More importantly they are analogues in flavor ranging variously from sapid and stony, to brightly fruity with a nearly crunchy character, to dusky floral and fruit leather onto tartly red fruited with volcanic undertones finally finishing with spicy, black pepper and blackberries.  

The second way these Rustic wines maintain variety is as a repository of genetic material.  Food crops have the Svalbard Global Seed Vault for safe, long-term storage of mostly cereals and beans with unique characteristics.  Since grapes are a woody, perennial plant, and are generally propagated by grafting of existing varieties, no similarity exists in the world of wine grapes.  This “genetic bank” can act as a hedge against the risk of climate change and disease, giving future scientists and plant breeders access to a broader range of genetic material to consider hybridizing into new grape varieties.  

There has been at least one recent study which showed that a rise of just 2°C in world’s temperature would negatively affect around 56% of existing planting of wine grapes.  While there are some vine planting and training schemes which could overcome these effects in the short term, such as changing row orientation to increase shading within a vineyard; planting different varieties may yield better results over the long term.  One of the most notable recent developments on this front was a rule change for Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur wines allowing both warm climate Iberian grapes such as Touriga Nacional and Albariño as well as relatively recent hybrid grapes such as Marselan (Cabernet Sauvignon x Grenache) and Lilorila (Baroque x Chardonnay) to be planted in Bordeaux vineyards.  

I invite you to experience the food-friendliness, value and variety these “country” wines can offer.  Why don’t you try a crisp and mineral Assytriko from Greece or a citrus and green herb scented Verdejo from Spain the next time you are looking for a wine to pair with seafood? Feeling adventurous and willing to try an unusual sparkling wine?  Give the sparkling reds from Gragnano, Italy a taste.  If you are in the mood for something red and hearty, consider a plummy and spicy Bobal from Utiel-Reuqena in Spain or a firmly tannic Tannat from Uruguay.   I hope that tasting some of these rustic, lesser known wines may prove to be both interesting and tasty for you.           

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