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Signature Wines (March 7, 2005)

As a wine writer, sometimes it's incumbent upon me to invoke the Not Worth Spitting clause. This is a way to protect my readers' constitutions against wines that are a) overly expensive for the quality, b) less appetizing than bath water, and c) beyond palliative care.

I don't relish savaging a wine in print because it is part of my mantra that wine is the healthiest of beverages when taken in moderation, better for you than water (no-one ever caught cholera or yellow fever from wine; also, think Walkerton, Love Canal, etc.). I would rather point you, gentle reader, towards the good stuff than take up precious column inches by warning you against expensive, over-the-hill plonk.

Whenever I'm asked what's the best way to get into the world of wine, my advice is always to go for the "signature" wine.

A signature wine is what a region does best, what it's known for. It does it better than anyone else because that particular grape flourishes in its soil and micro-climate. So commanding in the marketplace is a signature wine that other regions try to emulate it at their peril.

It took the French two hundred years of trial and error to work through the fact that Pinot Noir does best in the marginal climate of Burgundy, where the soil has a limestone base, while Cabernet Sauvignon requires the warmer, gravelly soils of Bordeaux. Yet it must be tamed by the addition of Merlot and Cabernet Franc for harmony and flavour.

Looking at the global wine scene, what are the other outstanding signature wines and where can you find them?

Sauvignon Blanc: New Zealand makes spectacular Sauvignon Blanc and has made this variety its own.

Zinfandel: California invented Zin. Unfortunately, it invented white Zin as well. But, wearing its red robe, it's a lush, fruit-powered wine that shrieks Golden State. Australia grows a bit of Zin and Puglia has Primitivo, but nobody Zins like California.

Gewürztraminer: This highly perfumed Dolly Parton of a wine is grown around the world, but nobody challenges Alsace for the Gewürz crown.

Shiraz: Australia has captured that market with its richly extracted, powerful wines, though its alter ego, Syrah, grown in the northern Rhône, produces remarkably elegant, smoky, iodine-nuanced reds that constitute a signature wine of their own.

Riesling: Whatever the rest of the world may say, Germany has a lock on this versatile variety that can make the greatest range of expressions – from cheek-sucking dryness to honeyed nectar and every shade of sweetness to dryness in between.

Chenin Blanc: Back to France for this one – the Loire Valley produces succulent Chenin in a range of styles, tasting of quince and honey. God bless you, M. Huet, for Le Haut Lieu.

Sparkling wine: Nobody can touch the Champenois when it comes to bubbly. They simply do it the best in their cold, difficult region. Sure there's Cava and Sekt, but give me a break – what do you toast your daughter with on her wedding day?

But, then, you probably know all this already. But what you might not be aware of are the signature wines of the emerging New World wine regions and those of the Old World that tend to be overlooked.

Malbec: Historically, Malbec has been a bit part player, a character actor, in the ensemble that is red Bordeaux. Usually it makes up only 5% of the blend, if used at all. But in Argentina, Malbec gets star billing, usually in a one-man show. Malbec is Argentina's most successful red wine and one we'll be seeing a lot more of, happily. By itself it produces concentrated flavours of black cherry and chocolate; you will also find it blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. Malbec also appears as a double-act in the southwestern France region of Cahors, tempering the tannic tantrums of Tannat.

Torrontes: Argentina also has a white signature grape called Torrontes that produces a spicy, aromatic white wine that tastes like a light-bodied version of Muscat blended with Gewürztraminer.

Carmenère: For generations, many Chilean producers were convinced what they had in their vineyards was Merlot, a variety first brought from Bordeaux to their country in the mid-nineteenth century. Recent DNA analysis has now identified much of the Merlot in Chile as a rare Bordelais variety, no longer grown there, called Carmenère. Its flavour profile is similar to Cabernet Franc rather than Merlot, tasting of red berries and green pepper. It's now a popular varietal in Chile either on its own or blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Pinotage: In 1925 Professor Abraham Perold crossed the Pinot Noir grape from Burgundy with the Cinsaut from the southern Rhône to produce South Africa's unique wine. Pinotage, with its smoky, tarry, blackberry flavour, is ideal for barbecues, especially at its attractive price.

Grüner Veltliner: One-third of Austria's vineyards is planted to this workhorse white grape. The wine can either be made in dry or semi-dry style and is characterized by its white peach and pepper flavour – ideal for Weiner Schnitzel.

Does Canada have a signature wine, I hear you ask? Yes, it does. Vidal Icewine is made in Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec and Nova Scotia. A little is made in New York State, but the glory is ours.

The only province to have its own signature wine (one not made in other regions across the country) is Nova Scotia. L'Acadie is a white hybrid propagated in 1953 at Ontario's Horticultural Research Institute. It never caught on with Ontario growers, who favoured Seyval Blanc instead, but in 1972 cuttings were taken to the Summerville Research Station at Kentville, Nova Scotia. Three years later, Roger Dial at Grand Pré Winery produced the first wine, and now it's the most widely planted grape in the province.




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