Stranger Things

Today seemed like the perfect day to write about a recent arrival in our household. Not, fortunately, another cat. We five get along just fine but we really don’t see the need to share our favorite wines and treats with yet another feline. And as much as we love to welcome an interesting new bottle of wine, this recent arrival is actually a book, albeit a book about wine.

Well, grapes really.

We’ll admit that we don’t always do a great deal of reading. Many of the books in our home are mysteries, and really, it’s hard to spend much time worrying about humans. Puzzles are wonderful but there are so many possibilities in that category that don’t involve reading about the inherent bad nature of people. Besides, there are over 7.7 billion humans on the planet. To put that in perspective, there are fewer than 1,000 Amur tigers in the wild. It’s really hard to dredge up much concern for humans when you see numbers like that – especially when the deceased is usually some evil character who deserved his/her untimely end.

Ah, but then “Godforsaken Grapes – A Slightly Tipsy Journey Through the World of Strange, Obscure, and Underappreciated Wine” arrived and we quickly congregated deep in the sofa to share in the insights of Jason Wilson. Mr. Wilson wrote a similar book for spirits called “Boozehound” and has written about wine and spirits for the likes of the Washington Post, the New York Times and even National Geographic. Over the years, he has become obsessed with finding and tasting those hard-to-find wines that you can’t find at your local store, or even those famous big city wine dealers that offer bottles of Petrus and Romanee-Conti Grand Cru without batting an eye. He has become a close friend of Jancis Robinson in this quest, a sure sign that Mr. Wilson knows of what he writes.

The trigger for Mr. Wilson’s quest was a simple yet startling fact – there are 1,368 known varietals of wine grape but 80% of wine is produced from only 20 varietals. Most of the remaining 1,348 grapes face extinction. The so-called “Noble” grapes dominate modern wine-making yet the notion of what is a “noble” grape is not that old, especially when you consider how long mankind has been making wine. What’s even more interesting is that while many of these other varietals have been looked down on for years as somehow being lesser grapes, DNA studies show that these lesser grapes are often the parents of better known grapes.

Take the grape known as Gwass. It’s a hardy and very prolific grape, and was therefore popular with those who needed something that was easy to grow and harvest and couldn’t afford high losses. Unfortunately, this easy nature ensured that it became known as a peasant grape. Members of the royal houses of Europe came to see it as unacceptable for royal taste buds and undeserving of a place at the royal table. Beginning in the Middle Ages, the poor Gwass grape was banned by royal decree from many vineyards so that it’s lowly genes would not mate with the noble grapes. Yet DNA testing has shown that Gwass is the mother of at least 80 grape varietals, including the noble Chardonnay, Gamay and Riesling.

Can we get just a little respect here please?

Wilson’s tipsy and enjoyable journey covers mostly Europe, but he also ventures into the Americas and Australia and even China in search of the obscure and unknown. There are trips up mountainsides in cable cars that are little more than wooden crates to a vineyard sandwiched between apartment buildings in Vienna. There are plenty of interesting people along the way, all sharing his same devotion to preserving and protecting these unknown grapes.

The best parts of this novel are, as you might expect, all about the grapes. It’s a wonderful look into just how much variety there is out there in the way of wine flavors. We’re so accustomed to what those 20 varietals provide that we don’t realize how much more wine can be. There’s Fekete Bela, a 90-something vintner in Solmo who still produces wine by hand from his modest 10 acreage vineyard. His juhfark wine is opulent, ashy, and with enough acid to keep it bright. There are also wines from the old Soviet republics, made from grapes like rkatsiteli and kisi. Or even the Saperavi grape, one of the few grapes that has a natural red juice.

It’s a wonderful wine world out there, full of possibilities beyond those noble grapes. There are wines that taste of dried fruits, flowerpots, sage, deeply earthy tones and wedding bouquets. There are chewy tannins and long finishes and flavors that can only be described as antique. It’s a world that’s worth preserving and the efforts of Mr. Wilson and his fellow preservationists is one that should be applauded. Or at least acknowledged with a toast. And if you can find it, raise a glass with one of those rare and underappreciated ancient varietals.


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