The Van Gogh Boat

“Nobody wants to miss the Van Gogh Boat.”  

Rene Ricard

Potential is a compelling thing. It implies unrealized greatness. In terms of wine, whenever a vigneron/winemaker takes a stab at Pinot Noir, for example, they’re going up against the ghosts of giants. But then there are the grapes, the raw material, which have no legacy of achievement. The giants which might define their apogee still walk the Earth.

In today’s Barrique, we’ll look at three grapes which are making a name for themselves, quietly amassing a catalog of very good wine while pushing towards greatness.

Nerello Mascalese

Almost entirely centered around the Etna appellation in Sicily, Nerello Mascalese is already producing high-level wines with glimpses of transcendent excellence. This is an example of a varietal being perfectly matched to its terroir. One of Nerello’s most admirable qualities is its communication of the volcanic soil of its island home. This lends the tart red fruit and pitched acidity a black rock backbone which sets quality Etna Rosso a step above their Sicilian counterparts. The quality revolution in and around Etna is a relatively new phenomenon so the wines we’re currently seeing are only the tip of the iceberg. For instance, Marc de Grazia’s Terre Nere estate, which has been pioneering single vineyard Etna Rosso, only had their first vintage in 2004 and no one, including the producers themselves, know how good these wines can be with significant bottle age. In terms of collecting, quality Etna Rosso presents one of the best “low risk, high value, high reward” ratios in the world.


One of my long standing little missions has been the promotion of a grape from Galicia called Godello. Nearly extinct by the mid-seventies, Godello was saved by the efforts of Horacio Fernandez and Luis Hidalgos but it wasn’t until the mid-eighties when Fernandez’s Vina Godeval released Spain’s first single varietal Godello. It was Godeval I first tasted years ago and I was completely taken aback by what I viewed as the grape’s potential. As Spanish wine writer Gerry Dawes says, “Godello is Spain’s emerging hope as an equivalent to the great white Burgundies.” Whether you take Fernandez’s Godeval, which resembles in delivery and mineral expression a classic Chablis or the fine work Raphael Palacios is doing with his Louro label, which is closer to Puligny-Montrachet in style and substance, the sky is the limit for Godello and though, as with Nerello Mascalese, there isn’t a long track record of old Godello, everything seems to be in place for top-level wines to be able to change and evolve in very interesting ways.


In the rural northwest, on the pilgrim’s path to Santiago de Compostela, Bierzo, thanks to the Sierra de la Cabrera mountains, is that rarest of creatures; a cool climate wine region in Spain. The primary grape in Bierzo is a local; Mencia. Most is sold and consumed locally, with a long tradition of light, simple table wine. But in the last 20 years, a fire has been growing. Led by quality innovators like Raul Perez and Alvaro Palacios, Bierzo has begun to produce wines which mixes the flamboyant power of Spain with some of the grace of northern France. Whenever I’m asked to describe Mencia, I call it Spain’s Pinot Noir. Again, we see a Palacios leading the way as Alvaro Palacios, older brother to Rafael, is producing outstanding expressions from single vineyards up in the hills. There is a bright purity to these wines, especially from the cooler hillside vineyards, which is both immediately appealing and intriguingly suggestive. Not to be a broken record but the quality of Mencia from Bierzo has exploded upwards in a very short period of time. With a few more producers with Palacios’ passion, this could become a very important world wine region.

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