Wine Geeks Get New Book of Oddball Varietals: Elin McCoy

Steve Matthiasson
Vintner Steve Matthiasson grows two Italian grape varieties, ribolla gialla and refosco, at his eponymous winery behind a housing development in Napa. Photographer: Elin McCoy/Bloomberg

On a tasting trip to Italy’s Friuli region in 2005, Napa Valley viticulture whiz Steve Matthiasson had an “aha” moment. He fell in love with ribolla gialla, a local white grape.

This little-known variety is now a hot vino-geek item in California, with at least five winemakers producing it. Its rise neatly jibes with the vogue for obscure varieties showing up on trendy restaurant lists.

Sated by oceans of boring chardonnay, neutral pinot grigio, and same-old cabernet, adventurous wine lovers have been pursuing the exotic to expand their wine universes. The Wine Century Club, whose members swear to have sampled at least 100 different varietals to join, celebrated its 7th anniversary in June.

Sipping Matthiasson’s 2010 ($45) bottling at a weathered wooden table on his farm behind a Napa subdivision, I find it deliciously nutty and spicy, with a unique stony, mineral character. Then he pours his juicy, intense 2009 Refosco ($40). Made from the Italian red grape of the same name, it smells of crushed berries.

But wait, there’s more.

The day before, I tried Lagier Meredith’s dark, rich, peppery 2010 Mondeuse ($42), an old grape (mondeuse noire) from France’s Savoie region that winemaker Steve Lagier and grape geneticist Carole Meredith planted on Napa’s Mount Veeder.

Flamenco Dancer

I’m also a fan of the Basque country’s simple, fizzy Txakoli (pronounced chuh-KO-lee), made mostly from hondarribi zuri. And a few months ago I savored tangy Vina Mein, a Spanish blend ($16) of treixadura, godello, loureira, torrontes, albarino, albilla, and lado (Got that?) in a San Diego restaurant while a flamenco dancer stomped.

Part of all this interest comes with winemakers’ rediscoveries of hundreds of indigenous grapes in their native countries -- and from the fact that plenty of these wines provide new taste thrills for under $20 a bottle. Varietal mania has even inspired a new blog:

Now, comes the one book that explains them all. “Wine Grapes”(Ecco Press), which goes on sale Nov. 6 in the U.S., took four years to research and write, weighs seven pounds in its fabric-covered box and could double as a doorstop or maybe a grape press.

Jancis Robinson

The all-star author team of two Masters of Wine -- internationally-known writer Jancis Robinson and her colleague Julia Harding -- and Swiss grape geneticist Jose Vouillamoz gives added weight to the book’s 1,280 pages, 1,368 varieties, 80 color plates of grapes reproduced from a century-old ampelography, 14 grape family tree charts and $175 price tag. ( is offering it for $110.25; for 75 pounds.)

I quickly gave the book a taste test, zoning in on refosco, which turned out to have a surprisingly complex family history. The cutting-edge DNA research that informs the book shows most of California’s refosco vines are actually mondeuse, though Matthiasson’s are definitely the real thing, whose full name is refosco dal peduncolo rosso.

Recommended Producers

I dipped here and there, hunting down grapes whose wines have wowed me recently. The most useful bits were the capsule phrases printed below each grape name, as in “Areni: Armenia’s signature variety making top-quality dry and sweet reds,” along with the list of alternative names of each grape, descriptions of where it’s grown and what the wine tastes like, and a brief mention of recommended producers.

Who knew Turkmenistan has two native varieties or that pinot noir is related to teroldego or that sagrantino was brought to Italy by Byzantine monks?

This isn’t the first modern take on grapes, but it is the most complete: amazingly informative and insightful, resembling an encyclopedia much more than Oz Clarke’s highly opinionated, irreverent and out of print “Encyclopedia of Grapes” (1996). Simplest of all grape guides is De Long’s Wine Grape Varietal Table, a cleverly designed 24 by 36 inch chart ($25) that describes the taste of wines made from 184 different varieties.

So much fascinating research is packed into “Wine Grapes” that it seems almost churlish to mention a few quibbles.

Tongue Twisters

Why does such a comprehensive work come without pronunciation guides? Even the wine cognoscenti have trouble with names like agiorgitiko (from Greece), posip bijeli (Croatia), and cserszegi fuszeres (Hungary).

And I’m not sure how immediately useful it will be for most wine consumers. I can’t imagine anyone lugging this tome to a wine shop or a restaurant to check on an unfamiliar grape before splurging on its bottled form.

If that’s your intention, you may want to wait for the electronic version, which, Robinson assured me in an email, will be out next March.

Don’t get me wrong. “Wine Grapes” is an essential reference that belongs on every wine lover’s bookshelf, right up there next to “The World Atlas of Wine.”

One of the biggest pleasures of wine is its diversity. “Wine Grapes” will inspire you to stick your nose and tongue into new aromas and flavors.

But only wine obsessives like me will haul it to bed.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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