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The Grape Crusaders: Wine Century Club

Have you tried Persan, Susumaniello or Biancolella? If so, you might want to join the Wine Century Club, whose only entry criterion is that you’ve tried 100 different grape varieties. John Stimpfig (who is on 180) meets a few members...

Wine lovers are a curious lot. I’ve met virtually every type of oenophile, ranging from the obvious collectors of blue-chip Bordeaux and Burgundy to less fashionable regions like Madiran and Madeira. I once encountered the proud and passionate owner of a small cellar of Moroccan wine.

Alternatively, there are those who delight in acquiring books, corkscrews, decanters and antique wine labels. And last but by no means least, there’s the most unusual sub-species of the bunch: intrepid hunter-drinkers of the world’s rarest grape varieties.

I recently came across this lesser-spotted tribe through Steve De Long, an American who lives in London. He also happens to be president of the Wine Century Club which he founded in New York in 2005. ‘It’s a bit of fun and recognition for like-minded wine lovers who are a bit more adventurous than most mainstream drinkers,’ he says.

Joining is free and easy to do. The only criterion is that you’ve tasted or drunk more than 100 different grape varieties, either in blends or as varietal wines. However, reaching your century is a lot harder than many might think. According to De Long, ‘A lot of people get stuck around 80.’

For some, joining the Wine Century Club is a bit like batting in cricket. Their main objective is to achieve the highest score possible – and quite a few have gone on to notch up unbeaten double centuries. (By my calculations, i am languishing around the 180 mark). A handful, including De Long, are triple centurions. incredibly, two intrepid grape crusaders are approaching 600.

Clearly a number of members are seriously obsessive. One is an airline pilot who, I’m told, won’t hesitate to cross the Atlantic to add to his score. De Long recently went to the Canary islands where he was able to add six new varieties to his total.

‘But I went there on holiday. It wasn’t just to taste the wines,’ he insists.

Depth vs breadth

For many members, De Long included, it really does matter how each variety tastes. ‘But it still counts, however good or bad it is,’ he adds.

‘Also, if it’s bad, it might be the fault of the winemaker rather than the grape. Unless, of course, it’s a dog like Scuppernong.’ He acknowledges that ticking grapes off a list can, at times, be a little geeky. He also agrees that his particular passion is very different from traditional, mainstream collectors.

‘I don’t have a big cellar – I’ve probably got more wine books than bottles. This is more about the adventure and experience of tasting widely, as opposed to tasting deeply.’

Membership stands at more than 1,200. ‘Most are in the US, where members include wine professionals such as Jamie Wolff, Tyler Colman and Robin Garr,’ says De Long. But we’ve got chapters in Hong Kong and the UK, as well as members in Brazil and Sweden.’

Michael Mangahas joined after he read about the Wine Century Club in a magazine. By then he’d been running his own wine appreciation class just outside Washington DC for more than 20 years.

‘I did a quick tally and reckoned I’d tasted at least 170. However, when I researched it thoroughly, it was more like 300. Now I’m at 560 and counting. But the higher you go, the harder it gets. My target is 600 but it will probably take several years to get there. In 2010, the Club put up a trophy (Le Grand Prix du Cépage) for the highest number of grapes tasted. I thought it was a no-brainer that I’d win. But someone actually had more than me.

‘I don’t know any members locally and I know that people in my wine club think what I do is hilarious. I still drink lots of wines made from Riesling, Chardonnay and Syrah. But I certainly enjoy the thrill of the chase and the discovery of different tastes. Uniformity gets kind of boring.’

New experiences

That’s certainly the view of one UK oenophile who also delights in seeking out and drinking wines made only from obscure and often exotic grapes. In fact, he’s so modest that he asked to remain nameless. However, readers of the Purple Pages on Jancis Robinson MW’s website may recognise him as Mr Grape Obsessive, or Mr GO for short.

‘I used to think of myself as a classic Bordeaux man,’ Mr GO explained to me in his North London home. ‘I certainly know the wines because I lived there and tasted extensively. But while I recognise that Bordeaux still produces some of the world’s greatest wines, I can honestly say they no longer hold any interest for me. Instead I much prefer to drink something I’ve never experienced before.

‘It’s a bit like music. I want to understand the whole repertoire of wine, not just a tiny part of it. Most people are simply too narrow and conservative,’ he adds. ‘In my view, they’re denying themselves real pleasure by not branching out.’

For Mr GO, tasting rare grape varieties isn’t a numbers game. ‘I’m not a member of the Wine Century Club and I have no idea how many grapes I’ve tasted,’ he says. ‘However I know it’s an unusual interest and most people’s eyes do glaze over if it crops up in conversation.’

His varietal quest began about 20 ago, although there was no defining moment. ‘My work took me to different parts of the world and I became increasingly interested in making these grape discoveries.’ His most fertile hunting grounds are the Loire Valley, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and Italy.

‘If I’m going to one of these countries on business, I’ll usually do some sleuthing which involves going to local wine fairs, visiting producers and talking to local merchants.’ And the wines he buys aren’t expensive. ‘Most cost between £10 to £20 a bottle. It’s really about talent spotting; I want the ones which are good to drink.’

He admits that he’s kissed a few frogs. ‘Yes, there have been disappointments. For instance, Susumaniello from Puglia isn’t on my list of top discoveries. Another was a ghastly bottle of Voudomato, which comes from Santorini. It tasted more like a sauce than a wine.’

On the plus side, he’s come across some wonderful finds including Tinta Romeo in Spain, Ramisco in Portugal and Persan from the Savoie. Another is the Portuguese white, Encruzado.

‘To be honest, I can see no good reason why Chardonnay is so popular and Encruzado isn’t.’

To find out more, or to join, visit www.winecentury.com

Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Decanter. Subscribe to Decanter here. 

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