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Exploring unfamiliar wines can reveal refreshing alternatives

The vineyards of France’s Saint Mont region date back 150 years and are home to both red and white grapes.
The vineyards of France’s Saint Mont region date back 150 years and are home to both red and white grapes.

I have to admit I’ve been remiss in my wine writing of late. It’s not that I haven’t been buying and drinking my share of wine. I have, probably much more than my share in fact — just ask my wife.

It’s just that I haven’t been inspired by any particular theme. Until, that is, I came across some wines I’d never tried, from regions I’d never heard of, and grapes I have a tough time pronouncing. You know what? I really liked them.

Let’s start with the most obscure and surprising of the bunch — white wines from the French region of Saint Mont in the far southwest portion of France.

Although relatively unknown, even in France, the vineyards of Saint Mont date back 150 years and are home to both red and white grapes. The Saint Mont Monastery, where the vineyards produce one of the appellation’s truly great wines, was founded by Benedictine monks. They planted the first vines in Saint Mont in 1850.

Although grapes have been grown and wines made in Saint Mont for a century and a half, the appellation itself is a rather young one, recognized as an Appellation d’Origine Protegee in May 2011. There are fewer than 2,000 acres of vineyards in the Saint Mont region, and from what I can discern, red wines outnumber whites about 3 to 1. Figures, I’ve developed a fondness for the blancs.

Then there are the grape varieties, and here’s where it really gets fun. Vintners use three grape varieties to craft their vin blanc, and to say they are a bit on the obscure side is like saying NFL players are “pretty big,” and NBA players “fairly tall.”

Just check out the names: Gros Manseng (whom I believe stared with Rutger Hauer in some of his earlier movies), Arrufiac (a city near Nice on the Mediterranean?) and Petit Courbu (which I believe is a French cheese). All kidding aside, I’d never heard of any of these grapes, and I’ve easily tasted 100 varieties or more.

Of course, it doesn’t really matter if you’ve heard of the grape variety. What does matter is how the wines taste, and the two whites I tried were unusual, interesting and really good. I would describe the wines as light to medium-bodied with flavors of citrus and a nice mineral undertone. Even better, the Saint Mont white wines I was able to find were both less than $20 a bottle — my “go-to” price point. Seek them out. They’re worth the extra effort.

From Saint Mont, let’s head farther south and west into northern Portugal and the Vinho Verde region. A lot of folks think that Vinho Verde is a grade variety in addition to a region. It is not. It is, however, home to some delicious white and rose wines, often with just a hint of carbonation.

More on the wines in just a moment, but first a couple of words on some other attributes of the grapes, the vineyards and the region.

First is the special way the grapes are grown. The region has a ton of small producers, upward of 30,000 or more. Many of the growers train their vines high off the ground, using trees, fences, or even telephone poles. The high trellising isn’t as much for the grapes as it is for the vegetables that can be grown under the vines, the veggies providing a source of food for grape-growing families.

Second are the grapes. Vinho Verdes, like Saint Mont, uses only local grape varieties. You’ll find no Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay here, but Louriero, Arinto, Trajadura, Avesso and Azal.

I’ve tried a dozen or more Vinho Verdes wines, and it seems no matter the blend of grapes the main characteristics remain consistent throughout the range of wines: fresh, fruity and floral aromas with extremely light coloring and almost always a hint of the aforementioned carbonation.

Vinho Verdes wines don’t qualify as semi-sparkling, but they do have a definite “tingle” on the palette. It seems to be a quality people either enjoy or dislike. Among friends, I haven’t found much middle ground on the wines of Vinho Verdes.

You can put me squarely in the positive category on the wines. I had four examples from Casal Garcia, one of the region’s best wineries, founded in 1939: The Casal Garcia White, Aveleda Alvarinho, Quinta da Aveleda and the Aveleda Vinho Verde.

I can’t say there was a tremendous diversity among the four wines, but they were all refreshing, pleasant and affordable. And that’s definitely a winning combination for me.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons.

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