Grape-growing has ancient roots in western Europe. Greeks,
Etruscans and Celtic peoples preceded the famous Romans in their love of the vine and the beverage it produced.
There is considerable archeological evidence, of course, but I also would point to the volume and variety of names for individual grape varieties as supporting information.
The more ancient (and useful) a particular variety may be, the more names it seems to acquire in each of the localities in which it is grown. The names themselves (in translation) tell you this story.
Sangiovese has perhaps 50 alternate names throughout Italy. Some of these names, such as riminese or rosso di Montalcino simply refer to the “grape of Rimini,” or the “red wine grape of Montalcino.” Others names, such as prugnolo, describe the grape itself — in this case, “the grapes similar to the blackthorn berries.”
All these names show to me the extent to which grape-growing was, and is, a basic element of agriculture in those parts of Europe where it was possible. As cuttings and seeds were distributed from farmer to farmer and region to region, new local names were established. It has taken scientists quite some time to unravel all the names, and some of that work was impossible before the use of DNA research.
Another grape with a similar plethora of names in its home country is tempranillo from Spain. In Toro it is tinto toro, while in Rioja and other areas it is tinto fino or tinto pais. Across the border in Portugal it is tinto roriz in the north and aragonez further south. And there are many more names.
Tempranillo seems well suited to most regions of Spain as it is an early ripener, seems to prefer altitude, tolerates hot temperatures, and has attractive aromatic character.
It’s less attractive features, such as low acidity and sweetness, can be corrected by blending with other local varieties such as garnacha and cariñena.
In Portugal, the touriga nacional varietal is a small but key element as part of the port blend, in which tinto roriz (tempranillo) also often appears. The grape is seldom seen outside of Portugal, and grows in small quantities in nearly inhospitable locales. The low-yielding touriga nacional has small berries and therefore a higher skin to pulp ratio which results in more intense aromatics, colour, and tannins. It is the backbone of any blend.
These two grapes are increasingly seen in dry wines in Portugal now, in addition to port. One example is the Quinta da Garrida Reserva 2009 (NLC $16.48), DOC Dão, which is a new listing here. The wine presents as dark in colour, with a nose of ripe black fruit aromas accented with some vanilla, tobacco and earth. It has a full body with generous fruit and acidity in the mouth, a good bite of smooth tannins, and a surprisingly lengthy finish for a wine in this category. This is an unusually big wine for this price range. Score: 16, Rating: Very Good.
Steve Delaney is a member of the Opimian Society. Email him at email@example.com