Food & Drink, Libations

The torrontés of spring

One of the more interesting marketing phenomena to observe is the rise of an obscure varietal. There are about a thousand wine grapes out there, with more being cross-bred all the time. There’s actually an association of wine drinkers in New York State that has members set out goals for themselves, tasting a hundred varietals, two hundred etc. Last I heard, their record holder was around 420 varietals. (I’ve done maybe 200, probably more due to the varieties in Port.)

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Until 30 years ago nobody gave a stuff what grape was in the glass, but it’s quite important to know this bit of trivia now that wine drinking has taken over piano playing as our neo-Victorian sign of gentility and good breeding. (Even the most genteel of dowagers in the Victorian era whaled back the claret with the abandon of a lord, sometimes even cutting it with opium.)

Torrontés is a white wine that was re-discovered to be planted in Argentina, where it had been cheerfully grown for a couple of centuries. Recent DNA profiling has shown it to be a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Listan Prieto.

This is intriguing because it indicates the myth of the grape arriving in Argentina via the Azores or Madeira may be true. And for the romantics in the crowd, it offers credence to the story of the grape being the descendent of the storied wine of ancient Crete.

Back when Egypt and the Minoans ruled the Med, the sweet wines of Crete were reckoned the best in the world, and imported by the wealthy around the Med. The Cretan wine was traded at values not far off those of Romanee Conti today. For years various people have maintained that the grapes of Madeira, and therefore Argentina, are the descendents of this noble varietal. (I have a theory that getting lost in the maze of the minotaur was a euphemism for getting lost in the wine cellar, but remember kids, I’m a professional wine drinker! Don’t theorize without supervision of your parents!)

Ignoring the romance, the key to the grape is the slightly aromatic characteristics of the muscat in the bouquet. This bouquet is similar to a sort of subtle kind of muscat or gewurztraminer with scents of citrus flowers and fruit. The palate is a bit more viscous than a pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc, and if well made (this is a vintner’s grape if ever there was one) has a pleasing acidity to counteract the muscat characteristics. The finish can be overly bitter, and the grape is sensitive to oxidation. Left in your fridge a couple of days, you’ll know what I mean when I say ‘astringency on the finish.’

There are several on the shelves here. The labels mostly come and go as the retailers and dealers give a different label a shot at the market. The goal is marketing nirvana, when the machine lights up and the bells go off indicating you can sell just about anything with that grape on the label and still die rich.

The best on the shelf here for my money is Don Rodolfo, a surprisingly muscular white. It is intensely fruity, with great aromatics and a restrained acidity. For some people this wine will be too astringent on the finish but it sure seemed to work with things like steelhead and dill.

Zaphy is a Trapiche line, and their torrontés is an organic wine which will matter to a few readers. They have kept the wine a little more herbaceous, I’d assume by harvesting the grapes when they are not quite as ripe. The result is a very clean palate with a not particularly sweet finish, and more restrained aromatics.

It is hard to keep these kinds of variables in balance, and Zaphy is to be congratulated on their success. The wine won’t appeal to some torrontés drinkers–those seeking the lusher aromatics–but I think it is a very nice wine and probably more useful with traditional white wine fare. If, on the other hand, you’re pairing with Thai or Indian, you want to pick the strongest most aromatic bouquet you can find.

Cuma is a pillar of both the organic and Argentinian shelves. Michel Torino makes great wine in a more or less New World style, and his organic line (Cuma) and his torrontés have been on the shelf here since at least 2000.

Organic wines often have vintage variation and, as torrontés is not a wine to age, I can’t really compare this wine, 2011, to previous vintages. In general, I found it a little watery, especially compared to the Don Rudolfo. However, it is, like all of Torino’s wines, well made in a dry slightly mineral style.

Finally there is Fuzion, a wine that cheerfully changes with the times. They blend their torrontés with whatever grape is currently au courant. In the past they were playing with chenin blanc, a wine I find intriguing, but either we’re finally over the great pinot grigio glut, or near the peak. Fuzion has blended the two grapes to make a pleasant salad wine/summer quaffer.

If you like any of these I’d encourage you to sample any torrontés you see. Of all the varietals available, I find the labels for torrontés seem to pop up and disappear all over the prairies, so I am always keeping my eyes open. The Banff Wine Store on Caribou (sometimes called ‘the wine cellar’ by tourists) usually has a few you do not find elsewhere, and The Banville & Jones wine buyer seems to have an affection for the grape.

Don Rodolfo Torrontés, Argentina, 2010. $18.58 *****
Zaphy Organic Torrontés, Argentina, 2011. $12.99 ****
Michel Torino Cuma Torrontés, Argentina, 2011. $11.25 ****
Fuzion Pinot Grigio Torrontés, Argentina, 2010. $12.99 ****

James Romanow writes about Wine and all things Boozy for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him @drbooze.