One is bound to encounter new and different terms with which to describe familiar things when travelling the world. Sometimes the terms are created on purpose to hide the familiar from view; other times, it’s a simple location-specific difference. For example, while I would call a certain delicatessen apparatus a ‘meat shaver,’ on account of its role in shaving meat (specifically smoked meat), others would call this apparatus a ‘slicer,’ since I guess it can slice almost anything (though, to get a little Aristotelian for a minute, smoked meat is the most perfect purpose of such an apparatus). This is just a little case of location-specific difference.
However, if I'm thinking of terms created on purpose to hide the familiar from view, I think about Riquewihr, Rhododactylos, and Centime, three intriguingly unfamiliar wines made from pretty familiar grapes. (How’s that for a segue!)
Centime (2011), created by Two Shepherds from a vineyard in the Russian River Valley, is an orange wine. Rather than going in-depth on orange wines, I’d like to direct you to WakaWaka Wine Reviews for a really great series that explains them thoroughly, if you’re interested. All I’ll say here is that orange wines are essentially white wines fermented on skins, and look like a blanche beer. You know that softly yellow, cloudy appearance that blanche beers have? Orange wines share this, but with a wider range of possible colours, from lightly golden to vibrant coral, and a similar array of cloudiness, from almost-clear to opaque.
Centime is pale gold and quite clear. Looking at it all by itself, one would not likely spot it as an orange wine right away. Made from a blend of Marsanne and Rousanne (Rhone varietals), this wine is perfumed and quite complex on the nose. It smells of flowers, mandarin oranges, and dried apricots, with some implied sweetness. The palate doesn't totally reflect the nose, with flavours of roasted radishes, citrus peel, spices, and a tang of bitterness. It’s quite acidic, but fleshy in the mouth too, which comes from the time it spent on skins. I think that this wine is great for people who are curious and want to experience new styles; it isn't something I would introduce to people who are just getting into wine, or who don’t have much interest in exploring wines. It's delicious, but I wouldn’t describe it as easy-drinking; it’s for those times when you want an adventure, not for when you want to relax in your favourite chair.
Riquewihr and Rhododactylos are both made by the Scholium Project, which you can read about here and here. My understanding is that the goal of the Project is to take usual and unusual grapes from small vineyards in California and make something unexpected. This seems to be achieved mostly by making wine in a very non-interfering way. Non-interfering winemaking (or ‘natural’ winemaking) more or less holds that each adjustment that a winemaker makes in the process of growing grapes and making wine interferes with the end product of the grapes, and changes the wine that would be produced if the grapes were left to their own devices. While this point is pretty obvious, folks in the natural wine camp view winemaker influence in a negative light and seek to get rid of it as much as possible. This is interesting given that the end product of fermenting grapes is vinegar (delicious vinegar, of course), and that the creation of drinkable wine entails the role of winemaker to watch it and interfere with the ferment process before it gets gross. While it’s unpleasant to ‘taste the winemaker’s hand’ – to taste lumber or added tartaric acid, for example – it’s equally unpleasant to taste wine that hasn't been controlled in the making, and becomes volatile and unbalanced. Non-interfering may sound lazy or easy, but it's actually a fine balance and a big gamble. The path of the non-interfering winemaker resembles a tight-rope rather than a boulevard.
The Scholium Project’s Riquewihr and Rhododactylos are good examples of non-interfering winemaking done right. I’m not sure that I should go and spoil the surprise of what these wines are made from; the Scholium Project purposefully presents the terms of the wines in a way that hides the familiar from view, perhaps in order to challenge the taster’s ideas about what specific grapes taste like and are capable of making. The grape varieties aren’t even listed on the label. Hmmm, what to do… Oh screw it, I’ll tell you.
Riquewihr (2012) is an aromatic, perfumed, smoky-smelling Gewurztraminer, named for a gorgeous commune in Alsace known for its Riesling – tricky tricky! The spice on the palate and smoke on the nose led me to guess this variety, but otherwise the wine isn’t what I would consider typical. It’s got touches of fruit and a round body, with hints of juicy sweetness. It’s complex, layered, and integrated. The integration of its components, especially the alcohol, makes this wine very pleasant to drink.
Rhododactylos (2012) is enchanting. It’s a white-gold wine with the most delicate touch of pink that seems to float just beneath the surface. Rhododactylos means ‘pink-fingered,’ and I’m not sure if it’s named after its amazing colour, or after the Eos, the Greek goddess of the dawn, or maybe both. This wine was originally sold as a rosé, but the winemaker changed the label to read ‘white wine’ after being told it was too pale to be rosé. It’s made from Cinsault, a large, black, thin-skinned grape that is also delicious to eat. Despite delicately pressing the grapes, the tinge of pink comes into the wine from their skins. My overall impression is that Rhododactylos is soft, elegant, and delicate. It has light, airy red fruit and tingly acid on the palate, with a refreshing radish and watermelon finish. While it isn’t the most complex wine I’ve ever had, I found myself going back to it after tasting other wines. I could envision myself on a very hot, humid summer day finding comfort in a chilled glass of Rhododactylos on the patio.
Marsanne, Rousanne, Gewurztraminer, and Cinsault could hardly be more familiar than they already are. While it's not overly common to find Marsanne, Rousanne, or Cinsault all by themselves, they're master blenders, and appear in all kinds of wine from the Rhone and Languedoc-Roussillon, South Africa, Australia, and the U.S.A. If you happen upon any of these Two Shepherds or Scholium wines in travel or restaurants, I recommend trying them out. It's always good to have your ideas of the familiar shaken up a little.