A tasting of unusual, rare grape varieties
Presented by grape variety expert Dr José Vouillamoz

These are notes from a tasting of unusual grape varieties with Dr José Vouillamoz, one of the authors of the remarkable Wine Grapes book. Each of the wines features a rare or unusual variety.

José is an engaging and articulate presenter, and it was a great experience to taste these wines with him, and learn a bit more about grape varieties in general. ‘I think it’s the most exclusive tasting I have ever done,’ says José. ‘It was very difficult to find all these wines.’

José did his postdoctoral research position in Carole Meredith’s laboratory at the University of California Davis in 2002. ‘She retired after I did my postdoc with her,’ he quips, ‘but it was not my fault.’ In 2004 Jancis Robinson approached Carole to ask her to update the grape vine genetics entries in the Oxford Companion to Wine, but as Carole was retired she directed Jancis to José. Then, a few years later, in 2008, José met with Jancis and Julia Harding at the Café Anglais, in London.

José suggested to Jancis that she should write a book about the best known grape varieties, but Jancis had grander plans. She proposed instead that José, Julia and her should write a book about ALL the wine grape varieties in the world. Four years of hard work later, and Wine Grapes was born.

José explained how a grape variety is defined. Surprisingly, it turns out that Pinot is just one variety: Pinot Noir, Gris and Blanc are the same variety for the ampelographer and geneticist. ‘At the beginning of the grape variety there is always one seed growing into a plant,’ he states. If the plant is interesting enough, then it will be propagated vegetatively, by taking cuttings or layering. That is a new variety.

If you do this for thousands of years, you have millions of copies. Accidents or mutations will appear, and some of these will be visually distinguishable, such as the colour of the berry. So these are often set apart as new clones. The most obvious mutation is in the colour of the berry, but this doesn’t result in a new grape variety by the official definition. Once Pinot Noir has turned to Pinot Blanc it is almost impossible for another mutation to come at the same place and cancel the first. Once it is white it stays white. Differences we can see with the eye are called clones; the older the variety the more the clones. But each grape variety needs one mother and one father.

Vouillamoz also mentioned the science of chronology of languages. If you construct a geneological tree of languages then you find a very old root word, which in Georgian is win-o, and which is shared across various language families. This suggests that the term wine is older than the emergence of the indo-European languages and is evidence that wine existed at least 9000 years ago.

42 countries have indigenous grape varieties from which commercial wine is made, and Italy is the leader of the pack with 377; France is second with 204.

When Wine Grapes was published it attempted to capture all varieties from which commercial wines were made, but since then more have emerged. The book has 1368 varieties; now José knows of 1405.

The book also introduced a new concept: that of Founder Varieties. A limited number of founder varieties were introduced, and what we cultivate today are the grandchildren of these founders. For example, Cabernet Franc is a founder, which originated in the Basque country in Spain. Other founders include Savagnin/Traminer, Tridibrag and Gouais Blanc.


Castel Katzenzungen Versoaln 2009 Südtirol, Italy
Made from Versoaln, from Alto Adige northern Italy. The origin of the name is uncertain, but Jose thinks it comes from the local dialect for green. This has survived as one single vine in the Castel, and it’s 350 years old, covering 700 square metres. The wine is made from this vine plus 100 recently planted vines in the research station, and just 400 bottles are made each year. Ladeger has recently planted 500 vines of this variety but hasn’t made a wine yet. Lively, bright, fruity and taut with citrus, nuts and a bit of spice, as well as precise pear fruit. Subtle nuttiness and crisp fruit, with a bit of mineral character. Good acidity. 91/100

Georg Breuer Rüdesheimer Berg Schlossberg Orleans 2011 Rheingau, Germany
Made from Orleans Gelb, from the Rheingau in Germany. 1300 vines exist. It was mentioned in 1539 in an old botany book, with the name ‘dark wood’. It is the progeny of Gouais Blanc and so is a half sister of Chardonnay, Riesling and Furmint. It was mentioned in Rudesheim in 1810, and then later replaced with Riesling. In 1921 it was considered extinct. In the 1980s Helmut Becker at Geisenheim Research Station started looking in old vineyards and found feral vines of this variety, and it has since been planted by two wineries. The first commercial wine of the new era was made in 2002. 400 bottles made each year. Rounded and a bit nutty with nice herby citrus fruit and gentle straw notes. Dry with nice texture and weight. There's some similarity to Riesling here. 90/100


Chanton Kellerei Lafnetscha 2011 Visp, Switzerland
Made from Lafnetscha. First mentioned in 1627 in the Valais. A high acid variety. Just 1.5 hectares in the world, all in the Valais, and only four producers make this. One parent is Humagne, an old Valais vairety, and the other is Completer, an old variety from a completely different region. So maybe Completer still exists in the Valais? José says he found an old guy with a pergola vine, and found out it was Completer, which has been grown in Valais incognito for hundreds of years. Soft and nicely textured with smooth pear and white peach fruit. Good depth: broad and quite pretty, with purity. 92/100


Branimir Cebalo Grk 2011 Korčula, Croatia
Made from Grk (pronounced ‘girk’), which is remarkable because it is not a hermaphrodite variety: it just has female flowers. Less than 50 hectares of it exist, and it is planted alongside Plavac Mali, with three rows of Grk and then one row of Plavac. ‘Grk’ is from ‘Gark’, which means bitter. Highly aromatic with pear and peach fruit, as well as wax and herbs with a hint of mint/medicine. Powerful palate with lovely herby fruit, and notes of pear, peach and spice. Exotic but still fresh with real intensity of flavour. 92/100


Paşaeli Kolorko 2010 Hoşköy, Turkey
Made from Kolorko, from the Hoşköy region near Istanbul. Very little is known about this. 200 bottles made each year. This variety used to be more widely planted, but this producer rescued it in 2005 from vines from 10 producers, and now they are the only producer making this variety. Sweet, open, nutty and herby nose with some apple notes. The palate is fresh and appley, with some wax and herb notes. Light bodied and slightly oxidative. 86/100


Antonio Mazella Vigne del Lume 2012 Ischia, Italy
Made from Biancolella, from the island of Ischia, near Naples. The name comes from Bianco (white) – the ‘small white’ of the island. José found that it is the progeny of San Lunardo, another local variety on the island. 293 hectares exist. There is no road, so the grapes are harvested and carried to natural caves above the vineyard, which they use to crush the grapes, and the must flows down to boats which take it to the winery. 6000 bottles made per year. Vines are grown as small trees called Albarello Ischitano. Lovely ripe nose of peach and apricot. Very ripe palate with pure peach and pear fruit as well as some spice. Powerful and rounded with great intensity. Stylish, rich, mineral and complex. 94/100


Vins Toni Gelabert Negre de San Colpnia 2010 Mallorca, Spain
Made from Callet, which means ‘black’ in the local dialect of Mallorca. DNA shows it is likely a cross from Fogoneu and Callet Cas Concos, but there remains a lot to be done to sort out all the genetic relationships in Iberian viticulture. 134 hectares exist of this variety. Ripe and aromatic with sweet cherry and plum fruit, together with warm spices. Juicy, sweet cherry palate is quite pure with a savoury, spicy edge to the midweight berry fruits. 89/100


Zorah Karasi 2011 Rind, Armenia
Made from Areni. It comes from the Vayats Dzor region of Armenia. It is the most important red variety in Armenia, but we don’t know how much is planted, or the parentage. It is distinct from the other varieties in Armenia. Areni village has the world’s oldest cellar, which is 6000 years old. Lovely, pure, peppery, fresh cherry and berry fruit is the dominant theme here. It shows real elegance. Supple, bright and finely structured with sweet, fresh cherry fruits and a fine peppery spiciness. Amazing. 95/100


Cecchetto Gelsaia 2009 Piave Malanotte, Veneto, Italy
Made from Raboso Piave, from Veneto and first mentioned in 1679. Raboso means acidic in local dialect, and there are 1100 hectares of this variety planted, so it isn’t rare. It is the father of Raboso Veronese, whose mother is Marzemina Bianca, and the child of Fogarina. Powerful, aromatic nose is rich, dense, spicy and powerful with some animal notes and robust, intense fruit with some balsamic characters too. Powerful and bold with lots of everything, and a grippy structure. 90/100



Domaine Belluard Gringet Amphore 2010 Haut-Savoie, France
Made from Gringet, which isn’t related to Savagnin (as most of the Savoie varieties are). There are only 15 hectares planted and we have no idea of its origins. This wine spends 2 months in amphorae with the skins. Full yellow colour, and slightly cloudy. Open nose of subtle flowers, jasmine, pear and apricot. The palate shows citrus and apricot fruit with nice grippy tannins. Complex and profound with lovely delicacy and detail. 94/100


Pheasant’s Tears Kisi 2011 Kakheti, Georgia
Made from Kisi, which is a cross of Rkatsiteli and Mstvane Kakuri. Only 50 hectares planted. Six months of skin contact in qvevri. Full gold colour. Remarkable and powerful with citrus and tea nose leading to a complex palate showing herbs, tea, nuts, spice and earth. Fresh, intense and powerful, with good structure, but not at all heavy. Challenging but lovely. 94/100

See also - a film of the tasting:

Wines tasted 06/13  
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