Wednesday, May 4, 2011

RICO, Pt. 1: Outing Accidental Wine Mafia

A visit to any wine shop will reveal that wines come from many countries around the world, but the grapes used to produce them do not. Photo by Procsilas.


NEWS: I’m going to spill a dirty little secret known to most in the wine industry, but not the wider world.

There’s a wine mafia. That’s right. A wine mafia.

VEVLYN’S PEN is the first newzine with the courage to cover the topic. Countless people have entered the Witness Protection Program to bring you this story. I am one of them. Famara Tish is a pseudonym.

The Evidence
Haven’t noticed this mafia? Think again. The proof is hidden in plain sight:
Visit almost any wine store, and no matter how folks dress up the displays, no matter the wines’ countries of origin, 90 percent are: Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz, and an occasional Cabernet Franc and Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. (Don’t forget: Bordeaux is a blend of reds, and Champagne is a method of fermentation, not a grape.)

One would think that wine could only be produced from these eight grapes. But that just ain’t so. Much like the New York City garbage hauling or co-op window scams of the 1970s and 1980s which limited purchasing options, so the wine mafia limits competition by restricting knowledge and availability of other varietals.

Quinta da Aveleda Touriga Nacional Follies 2006. Photo from Wine Chateau.

History of the Wine Mafia
What are the origins of this mafia? Sicilian?
Pshaw, no! In this post-post modern world, it’s time to move beyond such stereotypes. Besides, Sicily produces some stunning varietals just recently breaking onto the international scene: Nero D’Avola, for one.

No, the wine mafia is French.
Now to be fair: the French did not set out to create a wine mafia. In fact, they would deny its existence all together. That’s why we know it’s real. The basic logic is the same that the Birthers have used, except in our case, it actually makes sense. Unlike the former, though, we’re not crazy. (Did I write that? Who wrote that? I didn’t write that!!!! Strike those last sentences. In any case, we digress …)

The wine mafia began inadvertently. Centuries of production and the explosion of global wine trade have created such a dominance of French wines that their favorite varietals have become the world’s favorites, albeit with a few token additions thrown in such as Germany’s Riesling and Italy’s Montepulciano, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese.

But many grape varietals predate France by millennia. People throughout the world have tamed their own wild grapes, producing wines of various quality. Inspired by modern winemaking techniques, some have begun to release the potential of indigenous grapes, allowing them to express their own characteristics instead of forcing them to mimic well-known French styles. Some of the results have been stunning: Argentina’s Malbec, California’s Zinfandel and South Africa’s Pinotage, among them.

Label of Quinto do Vallado TR Douro 2007. Photo from

wRICO and Grape:Wine Talk
With these new comers, the wine mafia is beginning to crumble, but how to break its code of silence even further?

Create a wRICO Act – a wine RICO commission that investigates unusual varietals, adding complexity to the tried and true wine scene. For this and the next several columns, Grape: Wine Talk will feature largely unknown varietals worth trying. That’s what Wine Talk is all about – finding what tickles your tastebuds and the places to purchase them.

Portugal Makes More than Port
In this edition, we’ll begin with Portuguese varietals, and I don’t mean port. Port is a fortified wine, the result of a type of winemaking, and not a varietal. Additional alcohol is used in the fermentation process, creating a wine with a kick. (Port will also give a mean kick-in-the-head if one isn’t careful.) Rather, under examination will be Portugal’s red and white wines produced from indigenous grapes.

Within the last 15 years, Portugal has begun to enhance and then export its domestic wine production. Spurred by sharply declining sales in port, Portuguese vintners began to make wines from the same indigenous grapes used to create port. The result is an experiment in progress, but some of the findings are stunning.

The Portuguese are not producers exclusively of port such as the classic Sandeman Port whose label is featured in the poster. Photo from Morgue file.

Touriga Nacional: An Indigenous Portuguese Grape
Remember that Wendy’s commercial where the little old lady snarls, “Where’s the beef”? Ever have that same sensation when drinking some red wines? (

Well, Touriga Nacional will cure that quandary. Touriga Nacional is so robust that few hectares (acres) are planted; few need to be planted as Touriga is often blended with other wines to mellow its flavor. Imagine the driest wine possible – a wine so dry (so lacking in fruit and sweetness) that it comes across as a whisper, an idea of a wine, a reminiscence, like recalling a dream.

An intense dream, though. Instead of flavors one typically encounters with the basic red varietals such as berry, or oak, or nutmeg, imagine – now brace yourself – leather and tobacco.

Unwrinkle that nose! Oddly enough, Touriga Nacional often smells of flowers (floral nose; specifically, violets). Think of it this way: With a violet boutonnière in its smoking jacket, Touriga Nacional walks to the top of the line, says “excuse me” to the Pinot Noir, and calmly announces: “I’m with beef.”

A Minard's map (1864) of the world showing French wine exports. Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Like diamonds and pearls, Champagne and caviar, Touriga Nacional is a natural with prime rib and porterhouse: rich without gaudiness, this varietal announces what a grownup wine can be. Merlot, take notes.

Finding an unblended Touriga Nacional that’s not a port takes a little hunting. Here are a few to get you started:

Quinta do Vallado Touriga Nacional Douro 2007
$57.99 at;

Quinta da Aveleda Touriga Nacional Follies 2006
Reg. 14.39 - Sale $10.59 at;

Quinta da Cortezia Touriga Nacional Riserva 2009
Not yet available in the United States, keep your eye out for this one. Don’t worry – as of 2009, Quinta da Cortezia’s Touriga should age a few more years for the tannins to mellow. To speed the importing process along, contact Tri-Vin Importers to give them a nudge:

Next up: More on Portuguese Varietals

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