The Grape Glossary: a guide to hip varietals
One of the most widely planted grapes in Spain, a country with the world's largest acreage under vine, is a grape you've never heard of. Or maybe you have. In which case, congratulations. Bobal deserves more people like you.
Tempranillo and garnacha, Spain's two main red varieties, chiefly responsible for Rioja and a whole lot more, will always dwarf bobal in importance. But things are looking up for the underdog. Long relegated to jug-wine servitude because of its productive fruit yields and ability to thrive and retain acidity in Spain's dry conditions, bobal is earning new respect from keen producers, who are raising the grape's profile on the world stage. Even the British supergroup Coldplay designed a label for a bobal-shiraz blend, one in a series of charity-wine releases from the enterprising producer Vicente Gandia.
What's the appeal? The red variety yields full-bodied, intensely fruity wines, the sort that taste good on their own, but that also marry well with a wide range of dishes thanks to that vibrant acidity and spicy punch. Think of soft grenache mixed with peppery syrah mixed with racy nebbiolo. Or think of the 2016 Super Bowl half-time show: Coldplay mixed with Beyoncé mixed with Bruno Mars. It tends to be equally at home with saucy red meats done on the stovetop or roasts infused with herbs, such as leg of lamb. Roast poultry, baked ham or woodsy mushroom risotto would not be out of its range, either.
Bobal has been around for more than 500 years but plantings remain concentrated up and down eastern Spain, with many of the best examples coming from the central appellations of Utiel-Requena in Valencia and nearby Manchuela. The vine's recent climb up the social ladder can be attributed mainly to two factors. Various producers have been focusing on higher elevations, where cooler temperatures help bolster acidity, a welcome complement to its underlying velvety texture. It also demands attentive pruning to ensure even ripeness. Like zinfandel, bobal grows in tight clusters, which robs internal berries of sunlight. Stripping away a few well-chosen leaves toward the middle and end of the growing season can be critical.
Don't expect to unearth a wealth of bobal wines at your friendly neighbourhood liquor store. It's still an insider's grape, championed mainly by keen sommeliers in fine restaurants and, in Canada at least, by the Eurocentric Quebec liquor board. And you'll rarely find the grape name on the front label. Try the back label instead, and look for such producers as Finca Sandoval, Murviedro, Mustiguillo, Juan Antonio Ponce and Vicente Gandia.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol (HarperCollins) won top prize for best general English cookbook at the 2014 Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.