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Tim Atkin MW: Celebrating Creole

Published:  01 March, 2019

Compiling a list of the 10 best red and white grapes is an entertaining parlour game for consenting wine lovers. Should Chardonnay trump Riesling and Chenin Blanc? And what about Cabernet Sauvignon? Better or worse than Pinot Noir, Grenache or Nebbiolo? I’ve played this dozens of times around the world and the results differ more than you’d think. Yet some varieties never make the podium. There are more than 5,000 to choose from, but no one ever finds room for Aligoté, Dornfelder or Seyval Blanc.

The same goes for Listán Prieto alas, despite the fact that this was the original New World grape and retains considerable importance in South America. Brought by the Spanish from the Canary Islands and first planted in what is now the Dominican Republic, it’s still grown there in the Neyba Valley. The tropical conditions and double annual harvest don’t highlight the grape’s best features, but these vines are a testament to those first plantings in 1493. We owe a lot to Listán Prieto, also known as Mission, País and Criolla Chica.

From there, the variety spread to Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and finally Argentina, according to Gustavo Aliquó of INTA, Argentina’s National Agricultural Technology Institute. For more than 300 years, it dominated the viticultural landscape of South America until French grapes arrived in the 19th century and toppled it. Things have not improved much since. Listán Prieto generally has a poor reputation locally, condemned to bulk wine status and often planted in the wrong areas.

Mind you, that’s beginning to change, thanks to producers such as Huaso de Sauzal, Bouchon and Roberto Henríquez in Chile and Cadus, Durigutti and El Esteco in Argentina, not to mention the rebirth of interest in the variety in its native Canary Islands. The likes of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc obviously have more international prestige, but on both sides of the Andes a growing number of wineries are looking to their Spanish roots, reviving centuries-old traditions.

Work of pride

INTA’s work is a fascinating part of this. The institute’s seven-person team has been using DNA analysis and molecular markers to investigate the history of Latin American viticulture, working with what are loosely known as the Criolla, or Creole, grapes, in a collection it started in 1949. This is partly preservation, tracking down rare Criollas and saving them for posterity, but also pride, demonstrating that these varieties can make good wines if handled adroitly.

The sprawling Criolla family has two main parents and more than 500 offspring. The first is Listán Prieto, the second Muscat d’Alexandrie, an equally influential European grape that arrived with the Jesuits in the mid-16th century, probably from North Africa. The propagation of these two grapes and a host of natural crossings have given us Cereza, Criolla Grande, Pedro Ximénez and Torrontés, among other varieties, all of which are effectively indigenous to Latin America. The first three of these don’t produce great things in Argentina, although in Spain PX sherry can be wonderful in small portions, but Torrontés makes some of its most distinctive wines.

I was lucky enough to taste four whites – Criolla is nearly always white or pink – that the INTA team isolated and vinified in Mendoza. One, a Moscatel Blanco, was produced from what are the last 15 plants on earth, and it was fine, scented and refreshing. Another was a richer, deeper-pink Moscatel Rosado, the product of a crossing between Muscat d’Alexandrie and an “unknown father”, according to INTA’s Rocío Torres. “We’re still searching,” she says, sounding like an exasperated social worker.

All four wines were interesting and different in the glass. Santiago Sari, the team’s oenologist, says “we’re looking at our history, but applying modern techniques to these grapes”, which hasn’t been done before. Until the railway line arrived in Mendoza in 1885, linking the city to Buenos Aires and the outside world, wines were transported to the capital by mule or cart, a trip that took up to six weeks. No wonder they were “fortified” with chalk dust to preserve a degree of freshness. We’ll never know what those 19th-century brews tasted like, which may be a good thing, but INTA’s work is granting us a fascinating glimpse into the origins of New World wine.