A friend recently gave me a wine by Luis Duarte from the Alentejo region of Portugal, and I was curious to examine the treasure. Everything about the 2013 Rubrica was surprising, especially the lead grape: Alicante Bouschet. I had been reading about this grape in a book titled "American Rhône: How Maverick Winemakers Changed the Way Americans Drink." In the book, author Patrick Comiskey explained that the Prohibition's Volstead Act included loopholes that allowed the making of sacramental wine and also, most excitingly, the homebrewing of wine for personal consumption in the home. As a homebrewer, I was intrigued to learn that during the first five years of Prohibition, acreage and production of wine in California nearly doubled to meet the demands of the holy as well as homebrewers throughout the country. As a sommelier, I read with interest that Alicante Bouschet grapes were considered star performers during this time because of their thick skins, resistance to rot and vigorous growth. It was a matter of survival of the fittest, not quality and finesse. These characteristics made Alicante ideal for long and arduous shipments to the Midwest and East Coast. Charles Sullivan of Napa Wine made a case for why other varietals such as Zinfandel were superior to the "coarse Alicante," and I thought it was a pity that a grape with such a beautiful name was such a loser. With that background in mind, I was rather afraid to taste the 2013 Rubrica and set it aside for about a week while I built my courage (and thickened my own skin).
Yesterday, I opened the Luis Duarte Rubrica Tinto 2013 and reviewed it on Vivino. This was no loser: The black plum, racy dried cranberries and forest floor riding on fresh tobacco, charred wood and hazelnut made it a darling in my book, any day of the week. The wine is a blend of Alicante, Touriga Nacional (a Port grape), Aragonez, Sarah and Petit Verdot. I have found it difficult to locate exciting still red wines from Portugal, even in Los Angeles, and it is my understanding that much of the good stuff stays in the homeland. Tasting this wine was a treat, and it got me to thinking about "lesser" wine varietals that are relegated to the blending grape category, as has the Alicante. When treated with compassion and finesse, the Alicante is a treasure that can stand on its own, and you will find varietal examples of this grape in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, Spain and even here in California.
Alicante was originally cultivated in France by viticulturist Henri Bouschet in 1866. The parents of the grape are Petite Bouschet (created by Henri's dad, Louis) and Grenache. This is one of few wine grapes in the world that has red flesh. The deep color of the wine makes it a perfect blending partner with light red wines. The intensity of the grape's color also makes it vulnerable to rogue winemakers interested in "stretching" the wine by pressing the grapes several times or diluting it. This is a grape that needs loving and knowledgable hands to make it into a single varietal or unique blend. Luckily, the Alicante is enjoying a renaissance in France, Portugal, Spain, Chile, California and other locales. Look her up when you get a chance -- you may find a darling of your own.