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Grape genetics: Tracking down global grape varieties

Grapes are hard. Not “hard,” as in resistant to pressure — unless you’re talking about the first half of the year as it hangs on the vine — then, yes, they are hard then, too.

But they are difficult to keep track of. There are so many grape varieties used for growth leading to wine production. Widely considered the current authoritative tome on the matter, the book “Wine Grapes,” by masters of wine Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and grape geneticist José Vouillamoz, catalogues nearly 1,400 different grape varieties.

This is a ridiculous thing to consider if you’re just grabbing a bottle or two at the store for weekend dinner plans with family and friends. Wine can taste amazing when you don’t know a damn thing about it, and you should never feel bad about not knowing.

But some of the best wines I have consumed this year come from mildly known grapes, or even rare ones.

For starters, Massimo Ronca’s 2014 garganega is a summer requirement. At $13, this wine drinks far above its weight class. If you drink Italian white wine, there’s a decent chance you’ve consumed this grape without perhaps knowing.

Garganega’s most important place of production is an area 50 miles west of Venice called Soave , basically pronounced the same as “Suave,” as in “Rico Suave.”

Soave wineries have fought hard to claim their place for quality wine production, no thanks to the work of Bolla. Unfortunately, the Bolla winery juggernaut imploded any hope of a reputation for good winemaking under the Soave label for a generation.

Things are changing, thankfully.

This particular garganega is made just west of Soave, but exudes enormously pleasurable fruit like the best Soaves. This wine is packed with peach and apple flavors, and lemon that sings out of the glass for patio drinking. If you tire of aggressive sauvignon blanc flavors, but like dry wine, this is a must try.

Greek wine is a natural fit for this discussion. Finally, Greek wine has started to receive some long-due acclaim for the impressive quality production over the last 15 years.

Yes, the island of Santorini gets much of the allocated ink for the one-two punch of bonkers, otherworldly caldera views accessible whilst sipping dry white wines made from assyrtiko. But the mainland producers make decent white wine, even if their specialty is red wine.

George Skouras may be the leader of this group, for showcasing the breadth of balance along many different grapes not entirely understood by our market. But in time, wines like his Domane Skouras 2016 moscofilero will bulldoze those barriers. At $18, it is tropical, limey and maybe the best crowd-pleaser for anyone who doesn’t use wine bottle label reading as a crutch.

If you’re into rosé this summer, and you also dig cramming a lot of letters into the names of wine grapes, do check out Ameztoi’s 2017 rosé. It hails from Basque Country, a land and people essentially divided into France and Spain on the western part of the border, abutted against the Bay of Biscay. This wine is one-half hondarabbi zuri, and the other half hondarrabi beltza.

These grapes are barely ever grown outside of this region. And that’s probably just fine. But, for $21, you can crush this decidedly red-fruited, expressive wine that has a touch of effervescence. If you’re feeling frisky, you can copy the tradition of Basque bartenders and pour the wine from 3 feet above the glass, done partly to unlock the aromatics of the wine, but also partly for theatrics.

In South Africa, many winemakers excel in some grapes of French origin like chenin blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. But in the sexy regionof-the-moment called Swartland, wineries have experimented with off-the-beaten path grapes, often with mind-blowing results.

Eben Sadie is arguably one of the world’s best winemakers at this moment. Thirty years from now, he could very well be a household name for any wine lovers who even give a passing thought to South African wine.

The Sadie Family’s 2015 Treinspoor is made entirely from the tinta barroca grape, a grape originally from Portugal which plays a minor role in Port blends. This wine costs roughly $50, and has more complexity and life than 90 percent of the wines I’ve tried at this price.

Mushroom earthiness of nebbiolo-based wines from Piedmont, Italy? Check. Big, ripe flavors of extraction and black fruits like Amarones from Veneto? Check. Spicy but not to full-bodied and tannic like southern French grenache? Check.

It’s a surreal and decadent wine to drink, and it’s out there for you to gobble up for a special occasion. If you don’t, I will.

Justin King is an Advanced Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers. He is owner of Bridge Street Social, a wine and cocktails-focused restaurant in DeWitt and was named 2017 Best New Sommelier by Wine & Spirits Magazine.


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