Eating & drinking: Into the grape unknown

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF THE many peculiarities of the wine writer's life is to become inordinately fond of weird wines. By weird I don't mean made from loganberries, or aged in teak incense boxes. I'm talking about wines that depart from the accessible, internationally popular styles that dominate the supermarket shelves. I like Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay as much as the next man, and admire the skill that goes into making it good year after year. But I like tasting something different; something out of the ordinary; something weird, in short.

Which is a reasonably good way to introduce a small outfit in Staffordshire called Bat and Bottle (01785 284 495). Not long ago I recommended a Cornas they sell, but B&B specialise in Italian wines, some of which they import themselves. And some of which are truly, deeply weird.

I like these guys because they are selective and interesting. They sell no New World wines, for instance. "That's not because I don't like them", says co-owner Ben Robson. "But some wine merchants boast about their great selection because they sell wine from 15 countries, when all of them are Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. We are hedonistic," he adds, meaning that they sell what they like.

And they don't pretend that tout le monde will share their enthusiasm for such oddballs as the cluster of wines from a Friuli winery called Azienda Emilio Bulfon. B&B are the sole importers of these wines, made in tiny quantities from indigenous grape varieties so unusual you'll be hard pressed to find them in reference books. Piculit Neri Barrique 1994 (pounds 10.66) is a startling swallow of rich soft fruits and ripe tannins, its slightly bitter accents sweetened by mellow oak - really delicious stuff, even if it is a weirdo. Equally odd: Ucelut 1996 (pounds 8.80/50cl). This is ostensibly a sweetie, but if you didn't realise that you could drink a good few swallows without knowing. (This is not hyperbole: it happened to me.) The flavours are of dried fruits and melons, and exotic spices float around in there, too. A perfumed, sensuous wine. Tantalising. Almost as weird: Sciaglin 1996 (pounds 8.25), a resinously perfumed poke of pungency, lush in the mouth and mildly spicy. Warning: these wines are imported in small quantities, so you can't be sure of finding them.

But don't despair, because B&B sell lots of good stuff. For instance, among others, the wonderful products of Plozner, one of the more orthodox superstars of Friuli. Their Pinot Grigio 1997 (pounds 6.64) is prickly and lemony, fresh but robust. It has instant appeal but the aromatic fruit flavours raise it above the level of an everyday quaffer.

A final word about Bulfon: they also make three grappas, which I suspect are good. I haven't touched grappa for years, having once debased myself (think intellectual level of an earthworm) by drinking too much. If you are unaffected by such concerns, and like the taste, they are worth looking into. And a final word about B&B: not all their wines are weird.

Italianate weirdness can be found in another pair of bottles sold by House of Townend in Kingston upon Hull (01482 586 582). While searching for weird beverages at the recent Wine Institute of California tasting, I encountered at their stand the products of Martin Brothers. The brothers are Italian by descent, and House of Townend deserve a commendation for bravery in selling two of their wines. First: Chardonnay in Botti 1997 (pounds 7.79), 45 per cent of which is fermented in Italian chestnut barrels. Yep, chestnut. The wood lends sweetness and a buttery nuttiness quite different from those qualities associated with oak.

Second, and even better: Cabernet Etrusco 1995 (pounds 11.69), which the importers describe as "a Californian super-Tuscan". I see what they mean. The wine is an 85:15 blend of Cabernet and Sangiovese, and it combines sizeable tannins with a wonderful scent and very juicy fruit in which the Sangiovese is prominent. Totally delicious, and actually, though I hate to admit it, weird in provenance rather than flavour.

Wine-writing man does not live by weirdness alone, so I conclude this traipse through the unusual with an Italian that's entirely typical of its species. The remarkable Dolcetto d'Alba 1997, Vigna Scot (Bricco Boschis) Cavalotto from Adnams (01502 727 220) is a riotously enjoyable fluid crammed full of plummy fruit with a soft thwack of tannin and perfect balancing acidity. Truly outstanding, and easily worth the pounds 7.55 they're asking, it proves that wine doesn't have to be weird to be good. Whatever people like me may say.

To drink now An addendum to my comments last week on Champagne. I was dealing with fancy stuff then, but this week I've got a low-priced bargain: Le Brun de Neuville, Cuvee Chardonnay NV, available exclusively from Waterloo Wine Company (0171 403 7967). An award-winner in last year's International Wine Challenge, this is a fine fresh fizz with far more elegance than you'd expect to find for pounds 14.25. Or buy a jeroboam (four bottles) of Le Brun de Neuville Cuvee Selection NV for pounds 82.50, and start pumping iron so you can pour the beast on 31 December