March 2011

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Albilla is a mystery grape that remains a mystery to me despite my best attempts to internet it into transparency. Clearly, there is a grape Albilla and clearly it’s grown in sufficient quantities to produce pisco, even when it’s done in the much more laborious Mosto Verde way (see pic above for our first clue). The internet agrees, pointing out that Albilla is a light-skinned, slightly-sweeter grape “widely grown in Peru.” It’s listed among the “aromatic” grapes that go into Pisco (“aromatic” meaning they’re great to smell, in contrast to the “pure” grapes where you don’t smell much). Albilla piscos have been increasing in popularity the last two years. It used to be very rare to see a Pisco bottle labeled “Albilla” but now several wineries make straight-up “Albilla” piscos: Cuatro Gallos, Tacama and Viñas de Oro to name a few.

So, it’s a local grape grown just in Peru. It smells like flowers (violets), tastes like bananas and rose petals and then, in a weird twist, just when the wine seems like it’s gone, it stops for tea. Black, oolong, Lipton 99 cent tea? Not sure – will leave that to tea-lovers but I swear this Albilla has a crazy long finish of tea.

Back to the Mystery
However, half a world away, Spain happens to have a grape called “Albilla” that it grows in small, very localized quantities. It’s called “one of the best guarded secrets in Spain” and is practically impossible to discover outside of Spain. Taste-wise, it has a penetrating aroma and a yellow-golden color with a slightly sweet taste. Sound familiar?

Digging deeper into this rabbit hole, there’s an oblique reference in a Peruvian food journal that mentions the following:
“In 1553, Don Francisco de Caravantes brought to Peru the first wine grapes of the type Albilla, coming from the Canary Islands, which were planted in the outskirts of Lima with good results as well as in towns in the highlands, but the grapes took root much better in the valleys in the south, especially in Ica, Moquegua and Tacna.”

Canaries, War and Albilla

Now, I’m far from an expert on Pisco, but as an amateur Pisco lover, I do know that these are the regions in Peru where Pisco grows and the regions in Chile where it grows would never be mentioned in a Peruvian food journal due to a fantastic historical memory on both sides of the border of the the year 1879 A.D. And, when I look into the kinds of grapes that grow in the Canary Islands there’s this book that lists some general names (black, white, etc.) but specifically mentions Albilla.

Coincidence? CONNECTION! Although I’d love to be proven wrong if someone has a better story, until then, this is my story of a grape from Spain, routed through the Canary Islands, sailing into Peru and Chile and hiding out for 500 years among better known grapes. It’s my personal Mystery of Albilla.

Detail Up!
Cuatro Gallos Pisco Mosto Verde Albilla

Random Googles
* This page has the most complete information about Albilla on the web. As of today.
* Pisco Sour Day is an actual holiday in Peru. You can use Albilla in a sour but since it’s an aromatic, it’s better on its own.
* Albilla shows up in a new production of fizzy Peruvian wine by Viña Tacama. It’s geared at the “feminine market” (like me) and has lower alcohol.

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Sparkling Red Wine
Lambrusco is a wine that I should like but don’t. It’s red, it’s bubbly and it’s just different. It’s the original red bubbly. Australia has started churning out full-on bubbly red in recent years (as opposed to the Italian semi-bubbly frizzante of Lambrusco), but finding a bubbly red is still very rare. Hence, the appeal of wine shops recommended Lambrusco even when it’s bad.

Styles, according to me
Lambrusco comes in two styles – sickly sweet and drinkable – both of which have some basic characteristics. They’re red wine served chilled, slightly bubbly in that frizzante Italian way, and the alcohol’s on the lighter side (8-11%). Every Lambrusco I’d had until yesterday fit into that mawkish first category of sickly sweet, where the wine was often mistaken for a fizzy liquid lollipop. Apparently, this style caught on during the 1970s, right at the time of the Bee Gees and disco. Clearly a lost decade.

The second style – drinkable – is becoming more popular and includes yesterday’s wine above. Dry, still fruity (but not egotistically so) and actually drinkable, it’s a wine for cold cuts, movie pizza and rainy Sunday afternoons. Thanks to its low alcohol content, any scintillating film critiques you share with your rainy-day couch companion will be understood in real-time.

Lambrusco is a grape and not a grape. It’s the von Trapp family of wine. There’s a whole lot of individuals but nobody outside the family can distinguish very well between all those kids in the middle so they go by the collective “von Trapp” name. Same thing for Lambrusco. Ampelographers (wiki word of the day) know of at least 60 varieties of Lambrusco and yet “Lambrusco” is what you’ll find on the bottle.

Italy has Lambrusco stamped all over its boot, and this applies historically as well as geographically. Cato the Elder enjoyed this wine back in the Roman days and (despite his puissant name) he wasn’t the first. The Etruscans were drinking Lambrusco long before Romulus found his wolf teat and started building all roads to Rome.

Taste of Lambrusco
Pretty dry but still good middle-of-the-road fruit (strawberry?), enough fizz, and a slightly bitter finish. Better than any Lambrusco I’ve had (low benchmark) and actually worth having in the fridge.

Detail Up!
2009 Francesco Vezzelli Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro Rive Dei Ciliegi

Google Randoms
* Sickly Sweet Lambrusco Wine provided by Riunite – “top of the list of the 25 most influential italian wines of the last 25 years”
* Lambrusco’s 6 principal von Trapp family members discussed by WSJ’s Lettie Teague
* Balsamic Vinegar comes from the same town as the Lambrusco stronghold in Emilia-Romagna.

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