by Tim Atkin

Beyond the Big Six grape varieties

“I love Chablis, but I can’t stand Chardonnay.” “I hate Sancerre, but I adore Sauvignon Blanc.” You used to hear such comments all the time, even from people who claimed to know about wine, but they are rare these days. The major grape varieties — Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet — and the places they are grown have become as familiar as Simon Cowell’s sneer.

It was the New World that put grape varieties on the front label, a revolution that began with the opening of Robert Mondavi’s Napa Valley winery in 1966, was joined by the Australians and continues to this day. The French still believe that a grape’s primary function is to express a place, rather than its own personality. Grape varieties have helped to make wine more accessible by grouping it into sets of smells and slurps. But has the whole thing gone too far? Have we dumbed wine down in the process of simplifying it? There’s certainly too much focus on a dozen or so cultivars. Add Viognier, Semillon, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Malbec and Grenache and you have covered most of what appears on the supermarkets’ shelves.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these grapes, but they don’t have to stand alone. Not only are winemakers in the New World looking at alternative varieties; they are also turning to blends with increasing frequency. There’s a well established precedent for this in the Old World. To cite only a few examples: red Bordeaux, Port, Côtes du Rhône, Rioja and Champagne are nearly always made from a combination of grapes.

Some New World blends still doff their berets to France. The unoaked, plum and apricot fruity 2007 Yalumba Y Series Shiraz/Viognier, South Australia (£7.09, 13.5%, Tesco) and the aromatic, finely crafted 2008 McHenry Hohnen Cabernet/Merlot, Margaret River (£7.99 each for two, 14.5%, Majestic) take their inspiration from Côte Rôtie and Bordeaux, respectively, however Australian they may taste.

But what I find even more exciting are blends that use grapes in less familiar arrangements, particularly when they marry warm and cool-climate varieties. I’ve tasted four wines recently that have done just this. Cabernet Sauvignon is a common element in each of them, but its contribution varies from 5% to 40%. The other thing these wines share is complexity; none would be half as interesting if it were made from a single grape, although two contain large dollops of Syrah. Two of my choices come from Chile, a country which is making some excellent blends at the moment. The silky, sweetly oaked, biodynamically-produced 2006 Coyam, Colchagua (£12.99, 14.5%, is made from Syrah, Carmenère, Cabernet and Merlot, while the profound, savoury, refreshing, Priorat-like 2008 O Fournier Centauri Red Blend, Maule (£14.95, 14.5%, Bottle Apostle, Butlers Wine Cellar, D Byrne, South American Wines Online) blends Cabernet and Merlot with old-vine Carignan to brilliant effect.

My other picks come from Argentina and South Africa. The 2007 Colomé Malbec, Calchaqui Valley (£14.99, 14%,, produced from some of the highest vineyards in the world, is a smoky, refreshing, subtly spicy quartet of mostly Malbec with Tannat, Cabernet and Syrah, while the rich, broad, brambly, harmonious 2008 Boekenhoutskloof The Chocolate Block, Western Cape (£16.99, 14.5%,; or £15.99 by the mixed case, Oddbins) merges 69% Syrah with Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Viognier in a thrilling combo. If you’ve had enough of the Big Six in isolation, buy one of these reds instead. It could change the way you think about New World wines

Originally published in The Observer

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