EDITOR’S NOTE—Other voices, other vines

The last time I caught up with Max Allen, he’d been working on a book about biodynamic vineyards in Australia. From this side of the globe, it was hard to imagine the country’s biodynamic community was big enough to warrant the effort–distance tends to limit our perception of Australian juice to big, jammy shiraz made by affable footballers and technocrats. But he’d already built a website, redwhiteandgreen.com.au, based on all the growers and winemakers who were adopting Rudolf Steiner’s agricultural philosophy Down Under.
     Hoping again for a blast of the unexpected, I recently asked Allen what’s new in his world. He shot back an email about the boom in alternative varieties, grapes such as vermentino, fiano, tempranillo and montepulciano. I was tempted to discount his trendspotting as some personal agenda of the chair of the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show, a role Allen has played for the past ten years. But the facts proved otherwise. The news was not the remarkable spurt in show entries, but the underlying interest of growers, practical folk looking for heat- and drought-tolerant varieties to plant, Bordeaux and Burgundy be damned. At a seminar held last summer by the recently formed Riverland Alternative Varieties Wine Group, “more than 100 grape growers, vineyard managers, winemakers and cellar hands squeezed in,” Allen wrote, “most of them from the country’s larger wine companies, such as Foster’s and Casella; another 250 people had to be turned away.”
     The last few years have also seen an explosion of tasting groups, as more professionals prepare for the Master Sommelier or Master of Wine exams. Forming such a group requires little more than a few like-minded friends each investing in a bottle, wrapping it in brown paper and gathering to taste them. But what they learn from blind tasting can be invaluable. Taking the brand and price out of the equation, tasters can rely only on pattern recognition and pure pleasure. There are no labels to sway our opinions, no names that may prejudice our expectations. It’s why blind tastings can generate such surprising results.
     We lead off this issue with Allen’s story, and follow with a series of alternatives to jostle the status quo. Lincoln Siliakus, busy authoring a book on the southern Rhône, explores some of the hillier districts of the Ouvze River valley, where a lot of new talent is settling in to provide delicious alternatives to Châteauneuf–du–Pape. In Chile, where carmenre was rediscovered 15 years ago, I’ve considered the transformative effect the variety has had on Chilean wine style–and some of its most beautiful wines. In Argentina, malbec may not be considered an alternative variety, though it still is in the world market; with its exploding popularity here in the States, we asked Patricio Tapia to visit Mendoza’s best new winery restaurants to bring us recipes for malbec this winter.
     My long-term project for the issue was to convince David Darlington to revisit some of the Napa Valley vineyards he had profiled in Angels’ Visits, the book on California zin he wrote in 1991. Over the past several years, I’ve been giving some of my highest ratings to zin grown in Napa Valley–and sensing this a somewhat contrarian view, considering Sonoma’s vast wealth of old-vine mixed blacks and Napa’s vast wealth of cabernet. Darlington was dubious, and tetchy about taking time away from his current deadline, a new book on California wine. So W&S senior editor Wolfgang Weber and I put together an itinerary for ourselves and suggested he might come along. Over the course of a sunny day in Napa Valley, Darlington’s mood transformed from grudging curmudgeon to the happy, zin-centric kid he was 25 years ago when he apprenticed with Joel Peterson at Ravenswood. Maybe I like his story so much because he agrees with me, but I do hope you enjoy it as well.