Blast From The Past: 14 Wines Inspired By Times Gone By
In a world fixated on novelty, the wine industry manages time and again to make tradition seem like the hot new thing. Go to any region that once had a raging battle between barrique-praising, fruit-fixated modernists and dusty cellared, terroir-obsessed traditionalists and you’ll find scant producers eager to be lumped into the forward-facing camp.
In Australia and California, young winemakers will talk up their savoury, “traditional”, wines and even European producers with very clean, fruit-focused wines still tout their “traditional” chops. Then there’s the natural wine movement where everything is jumbled up with a pseudo-historical fixation on minimising intervention (as if anything could be more modern than deliberately eschewing available technology for purely philosophical reasons).
So, to celebrate the spring season, here are a few ways to think about “tradition” when it comes to wine. We’ll investigate a few periods of history that are in various states of revival, from the very ancient, such as Georgian amber wines, to wines of a much more recent yesteryear, like Napa Valley classics. Given the sheer diversity of styles that have been in vogue through the millennia, you’re bound to find something that makes someone else’s “old” seem shiny and new to you.
Nectar of the Ancients
While there is still some debate about the origins of wine, most scholars agree that vine domestication dates back to at least 4000BC and probably spread from the area around the Caucasus Mountains (modern-day Georgia) gradually westward, traipsing through Phoenicia (modern-day Lebanon), Greece and Rome before making its way north and west. For an especially exotic holiday meal, why not choose wines that retrace the vine’s ancient steps? However, be prepared to drink a lot of whites, which were generally more prized in antiquity than their red counterparts.
1/13 Shalauri Rkatsiteli 2013
The brainchild of an eclectic quartet of local entrepreneurs, this updated take on the classic Georgian qvevri (amphora) wine is made with its flagship rkatseteli grape (just say “R-cats-a-telly”) and has a smoky mandarin peel and boiled ginger nose with waxy, shaggy tannins from time fermenting with the grape skins.
2/13 Chateau Musar Blanc 2003
Still the brightest star in Lebanon’s wine firmament even after the passing of its irreplaceable owner Serge Hochar, Musar’s white remains even more delightfully idiosyncratic than its red thanks to the use of Lebanese native grapes obaideh and merwah. Often likened to chardonnay or sémillon, these grapes blend to a waxy, luscious softness reminiscent of white from Bordeaux or Rioja (with similar age-worthiness).
3/13 Gaia ‘Assyrtiko by Gaia’ Wild Ferment 2016
Santorini’s assyrtiko grape is the quintessential hot climate white, putting on creamy richness while retaining blazingly bright acid and salty, herbal freshness (look for wild fennel and sea grass notes) that can’t help but take you to the caldera. A more strictly “traditional” assyrtiko would be the sweet raisin wine vinsanto; Boutari make a wonderfully balanced, refined version.
4/13 Mastroberardino Villa dei Misteri Rosso Pompeiano IGT 2001
Campanian icon Mastroberardino undertook the ultimate geeky wine project in 1996, reproducing viticulture at the actual site of ancient Pompeii as it would have taken place in 79AD when Vesuvius’s eruption froze it in time forever. The result is an exquisitely lithe, sinuous red mainly made from native piedirosso.
After the fall of the western Roman empire, Europe could have entered a wine-less dark age were it not for Christian monks, whose generous parcels of land, facility for teamwork and Eucharist-related wine habit made them the ideal torchbearers for the continent’s vinous heritage. Of course, few regions are more famously associated with monks than Burgundy and Champagne, but countless regions across Europe—as well as missions in California, South America and Australia—owe their wine chops to the meticulous care of Christian brothers (and, occasionally, sisters).
5/13 Encanto Grand & Noble Pisco
Not a wine, but a remnant of the wine-addled missionary past, this Peruvian pisco is made from heritage grape wine distilled in a copper still. Pisco production was likely refined by Jesuits in either Peru or Chile (not joining that debate!) to utilise fruit from vines brought by 16th century Spanish conquistadors. Add some lemon and egg white for a very Easter-friendly pisco sour.
6/13 Marc Kreydenweiss Moenchberg Pinot Gris 2016
From an Alsatian grand cru site named after the 11th-century monks who tended it and famously a favourite of Alsatian Pope Leo IX, Kreydenweiss’s biodynamic pinot gris shows the plot’s characteristically forthright acidity and pleasantly cleansing bitterness, which rein in its exuberantly ripe, almost tropical yellow fruit. However, it’s drier than in previous years, with only around 5 g/l of residual sugar.
7/13 Weingut Prieler Sankt Laurent 2016
Nurtured in Austria by the 12th-century Augustinian monastery Klosterneuburg, this pinot-related variety is named after St. Lawrence’s day (August 10th), when its grapes start to turn red. This finely wrought version from Prieler has a subtle, animalistic funk that unwinds into a rich, cranberry and boysenberry middle that’s pleasingly light in alcohol.
Age of Empires
Though the Germanic Holy Roman Empire had little to do with its Latin predecessor, one thing it can reasonably lay claim to is a similarly rich and diverse oenological treasure trove. Its decentralised political power meant there were courts and consequently wealthy courtiers across the empire, creating a substantial market for luxury wines. Many of these wines would have been generously sweet to complement the abundant sweetness of aristocratic tables, but to spare your teeth (and waistline) we’ve proposed drier options.
8/13 Weingut Wieninger Wiener Gemischter Satz Rosengartl 2017
Vienna is among the last major European cities to house vineyards within its walls, something that used to be common around the continent. Historic heurige, wine brewpubs that began popping up in the city in 1784, favoured simple field blends called gemischter satz. The aptly named wieninger has elevated the style with single-vineyard satz using Austrian natives such as grüner veltliner and neuburger to produce deliciously complex, honeyed wines freshened with racy acidity.
9/13 Schloss Johannisberger Silberlack Riesling 2015
Schloss Johannisberg is one of the Rheingau’s most historical properties, laying claim to the 1775 “invention” of the spätlese style. Two hundred and forty years later, the Silberlack (Grosses Gewächs) dry riesling captures the property’s renowned spiciness and power without the accompanying sweetness. If you wouldn’t mind a little sugar, try the grünlack (their spätlese) for a more overtly fruity, pretty riesling.
10/13 Cantina Sociale d’Isera Marzemino 2017
Immortalised by Don Giovanni’s call for “eccellente Marzemino” shortly before descending into hell, today this wine lies in wine world purgatory. No longer the sweet, delicate red of Mozart’s day, the dry version is often too flimsy to show off its bitter cherry, marzipan charm. However, this more concentrated version from marzemino’s Italian homeland, Isera, renders its herbal, brooding fruit worthy of the Don’s table.
Drawing closer to the present, we see that some of our most treasured regions are currently making wines that would have seemed alien to their pioneering producers. Barossa, along with most of Australia, was once fortified wine country. Napa wines have gotten considerably bigger and riper (although inevitably “heretics” like Matthiasson and Massican are now pushing in a totally different direction). Here are a few retro tipples evoking the mid-20th century that are starting to look awfully cool once more.
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11/13 Carpano Antica Formula
Again, not a wine but instead the granddaddy of sweet vermouths originally invented in 1786 by the Carpano family of Turin and roaringly popular worldwide during the 1950s. As ever, this spins the oversupply of white grapes from central and southern Italy into gold by infusing it with vanilla, saffron and wormwood (hence “vermouth”). Delicious on its own over ice or in an Americano or Negroni.
12/13 Heitz Cellar Napa Valley Grignolino 2015
Conspicuously on-trend now that Italy’s native grape varieties are increasingly popular across new world vineyards, Napa OG producer Heitz has been making grignolino (a somewhat obscure Piemontese grape) since 1961. It’s a vibrant, quixotic, crunchy red that is as unlike the stereotype of Parkerized Napa wines as you can imagine.
13/13 Seppeltsfeld Para Rare Tawny
Now largely relegated to guilty Christmas drinking, Australia’s fortified wines were king until the middle of the 20th century, when the dry table wine hegemony began. However, the past few years have seen something of a fortified resurgence. This gloriously highbrow, madeira-like Barossa Valley tawny has a fudgy, peachy nose, a plush red heart and a refined toast and walnut skin finish.
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