How to fall in love with a grape you hate

Can one wine change my mind on a whole varietal?

I said in my Peruvian blog post that I don't like Viognier. I may have also said in one of my Bordeaux articles that I'm not a fan of Merlot either. In fact, someone the other day asked me if I liked Merlot, and I pulled a bit of a face.

And yet, I'm always very critical of people who categorically don't like something, especially a wine. Some people don't like reds, or whites, or rosés, or (like my father) sparkling. Others are a bit more specific, and, in my case, the list of grapes I turn my nose up at and politely decline(d) is rather long.

I don't like Picpoul, and I didn't love Garganega. Soave was a no-go zone for me. The list goes on, and while I feel more strongly about some grapes (Dunaj, ugh) than others (Sauvignon Blanc isn't my fav, Nebbiolo di Dronera shows promise, etc), there is quite a long list.

And yet, for almost every grape I've mentioned so far, there's always a wine that makes me sit back and reconsider my boorishness and turned up nose. Is it the grape that I don't like, or bad experiences with poor winemaking?

There is of course an argument to be made that if it takes outstanding winemaking to make a grape palatable, then it's still a bad grape and that skill would be put to better use with a more easy-going grape. But I'm not convinced by this - I recently tried my first oaked Condrieu - ok technically an IGP but from a Condrieu producer. It wasn't just outstanding for a Viognier, it was downright brilliant. I would actively ask for an oaked Viognier in future, in the hope of repeating this experience (Foncalieu, a cooperative I have a lot of respect for, makes an outstanding IGP d'Oc Viognier too - proof that there's more than just Condrieu). Somewhat differently, Ixsir's EL Viognier from Lebanon was an eye-opener for how a wine that I didn't love, from a grape I didn't love, could still wow in the right context, paired with the right food.

Foncalieu Le Versant 2019 5/5

White fruit, peachy, floral, mineral, vanilla. Mineral, flinty, very mineral with tropical fruit, pineapple. Full body, a little pepper at the end. A little chalky, oily body. Good acidity. Outstanding viognier. Exceptional value - rivals Condrieu.

Domaine Pichat Collines Rhodaniennes 2019 5/5

Some floral, honey, ripe bruised apples. Very very pleasant - shockingly woody, oaked, round. Classic oily body but really muted by the ripe fruit but mostly by the broad, strong structure offered by the oak. Really really unusual, but outstanding - oaked viognier is a must.

I can tell a similar story for my initial dislike of Soave. My experience with Garganega was £10-ish bottles on the UK market, maybe even the odd £15. In French or Italian prices, that's a €5 supermarket bottle at best. Of course, there are plenty of grapes which can yield great, good-value wines. Garganega just doesn't seem to be one of them - give it some TLC, nudge the price up a bit, and it shines. Early on in lockdown, I got to taste twenty-odd mid-range €10-€20 Soaves. I would now describe Soave as one of my favourite white wines. Was my problem with Garganega, or just bad wine?

Likewise for Merlot - not my favourite grape - but add some fancy oak, Pomerol climate, and an €80 price tag, and it's pretty good. Even the best grape, squeezed into a £6 price point, will struggle to deliver. Of course, there's a bit of a gap between €8 and €80, and you shouldn't 'need' to spend so much just to make good wine. Take a look at my note for one of my en primeur tastings earlier this year:

Clos Bertineau Merlot Montagne Saint-Emilion 2019 5/5

Restrained, very. A little saline, mineral. Quite enticing, a little black fruit, a hint of floral, some violets, dark plummy, a little yeasty. Actually quite pleasant. Saline, good acidity. Top notch actually - a wine to make a non-Merlot drinker change their mind. More black fruit and salinity on finish, just a hint of wood maybe?

There are, of course, still a handful of grapes that defy my theory that every grape can make good wine. I'm yet to find a Slovak Dunaj that goes further than "technically flawless", and for all my love of top Condrieu, it's such a small portion of worldwide Viognier that it hardly counts.

I don't like the conclusion that I've come to - buy better and/or more expensive, and you'll like the wines more. It's an easy cop-out. I suppose a better conclusion to draw is that if you initially don't like a grape, it's unlikely that something will click and you'll start loving it - but to dismiss all wines it makes, out of hand, will mean missing out on some wonderful experiences.