It's a central truth of wine making that each grape variety has its preferred locales. Pinot noir, for instance, reaches what most connoisseurs consider its greatest expression on the limestone-rich hillsides of northern Burgundy. Some exacting Burgundy fans turn up their noses at pinot noir from anywhere else.
The same is true, though to a lesser extent, of many New World wine regions. Want the highest return for your money in Australia's Barossa Valley? Stick with shiraz.
When it comes to wine, geography is destiny. The French have a word for that destiny: terroir.
But for consumers who drink a lot (alas, we know who we are), tradition can sometimes get boring. There, I said it. I occasionally enjoy a non-Burgundian pinot noir. Sometimes it's fun to taste an oddball pinot noir from Patagonia or Tasmania, isn't it? Or a quirky tempranillo from Barossa. Or a barbera from British Columbia.
Veering off the beaten terroir is the oenological equivalent of fusion cuisine. It's about breaking the rules to create something new. Classic tomato-cheese pizza can be sublime, but just because salmon doesn't swim in the Bay of Naples doesn't mean a chef can't put lox and sour cream on Italian flatbread. Wolfgang Puck did it, and his "Jewish pizza" became a cornerstone of Cal-Ital cuisine.
Fortunately, there seem to be more and more fusion vintners out there willing to brave inevitable jeers from hidebound traditionalists. They're playing in the dirt and, occasionally, coming up with interesting new wines that defy pigeonholing, which always frustrates wine critics.
Notable examples in this country include Inniskillin Okanagan, with its Discovery Series, which includes a decent marsanne-roussanne blend inspired by the white wines of the Rhône Valley, and Sandhill, also in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, which for years has been producing small-lot runs of red varieties not commonly found outside Italy, such as barbera. And to those who've tasted it, one of the most inspired grape invaders anywhere has got to be Malivoire Melon from Niagara. Melon de Bourgogne is responsible for the hyper-lean, neutral-tasting whites of the Muscadet zone in France's Loire Valley. These are quintessential oyster wines. Ironically, owner Martin Malivoire planted his melon vines accidentally, mistaking the imported cuttings for muscat.
Internationally, examples I've been impressed with include a sangiovese made in eye-dropper quantities by Penfolds (available only at the cellar door in Australia) and an albarino, the crisp white grape of Spain's relatively damp Rias Baixas region, made by Hendry Ranch in, of all places, California's sunny Napa Valley.
What follows are a few quirky selections that have made appearances on Ontario and Quebec shelves recently. Not too surprisingly, many hail from Australia, land of the loose-cannon vintner. I can't promise that each is fabulous, but they are all interesting.
Trinity Hill Homage Syrah 2006, Hawkes Bay, N.Z. ($94.25, available as a specialty purchase at Quebec SAQ stores)
Okay, this one is fabulous, as the exorbitant price might suggest. New Zealand is best known for sauvignon blanc and sometimes cited as a fine producer of pinot noir and chardonnay. But syrah? Not so much. The grape's spiritual home is the northern Rhône, notably the districts of Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage, where it can develop captivating nuances of game, cured meat, cracked pepper and licorice. Grown on the opposite side of the planet, this broad-shouldered, rugby-playing syrah could be Côte-Rôtie's long-lost Kiwi twin. It's even made with a dollop - 3 per cent - of white viognier, just as in Côte-Rôtie. Not surprisingly, this vintage took home "champion wine of show" at the Air New Zealand Wine Awards, and scored 95 in Robert Parker's influential newsletter.
Peter Lehmann Barossa Tempranillo 2006, South Australia ($19.95 in Ontario Vintages stores)
Here's a fusion red inspired by a trip Peter Lehmann's chief winemaker, Andrew Wigan, took to Rioja in Spain, where tempranillo is king. Does it taste like Rioja? Only a little. Does it have to? Of course not. It's full-bodied and silkier than most Spanish tempranillos, with notes of berries and black olive as well as a slight, one could say European, essence of smoke and game. Not memorable in the way of a rustic, old-school Rioja, but hey, at least it's not another shiraz.
Vignamaggio Suhaili Syrah 2006, Puglia, Italy ($14.95 in Ontario)
Syrah has become a prominent player on the southern Italian island of Sicily, where top producers such as Planeta have shown it can make a regal wine alongside its similar-tasting local counterpart, nero d'Avola. Much more obscure are the syrahs of Puglia, the region that forms the spur and heel of Italy's boot. This rendition is medium full-bodied. The ripe fruit flavours indicate it's spent time in the hot sun. A tug of astringency from the tannins keeps it all together and tight, though, with a nuance of herbs and leather putting in cameo appearances. Decent for the money.
Black Prince Melon de Bourgogne 2008, Prince Edward County, Ont. ($16.75, blackprincewinery.com)
Ontario's newest wine-growing region, Prince Edward County, has no track record with any grape variety, to be frank. But most of the talk since it splashed on the scene about five years ago has revolved around the potential of pinot noir. This wine from Black Prince, grown in minuscule quantities, makes me wish more growers were planting melon, the lean grape of Muscadet in France. It's a model of freshness, with more complexity than in some true-blue Muscadets. Zesty citrus gets support from a stone-like mineral quality. If you're a burgundy fan, think of unoaked Petit Chablis. Good for oysters, and at a modest 11-per-cent alcohol it's also a wise choice for hot weather.
Concha Y Toro Winemaker's Lot No. 11 Riesling 2007, Chile ($14.95 in Ontario)
Riesling from Chile? You bet. The coolness-craving grape has found a brisk pocket where it can flourish in an otherwise pretty warm country, namely the Bio Bio Valley in the south. Totally dry, this white is brimming with citrus and stone-fruit flavours. Perfect for hot days. Think of delicate Australian riesling, only with more peach and a lot less mouth-puckering lime.
Cockfighter's Ghost Verdelho 2007, Hunter Valley, Australia ($18.95 in Ontario)
Not exactly a rarity in Australia, verdelho is nonetheless strongly associated with Portugal, where it's most prominently used as a component in the sweet fortified wine Madeira. Spain, where it's known as verdello, grows a lot of it too. Medium-bodied, this wine from producer Poole's Rock shows a seamless texture and flavours reminiscent of green melon, citrus and mineral. Another great sipping wine for summer. I dare say it would also go well with smoked salmon pizza.