Last summer I flew to Nova Scotia from the West Coast and was hounded by delayed flights along the way. I planned for a relaxing night in Halifax, a fresh seafood dinner with local wines, but I landed five hours late with few options on a Tuesday night in a sleepy city. I raced in a cab to Obladee Wine Bar just in time to catch last call. Asking for a glass of something local, the waiter poured me Luckett Vineyards' 2011 Ortega. He said that it was one of his favourite wines from anywhere. In that moment, after a day of frustrating travel, it was the perfect glass. It was delicious and uncomplicated and if I had a little more time, I would have finished the bottle. The wine came out of a cold fridge, cool enough to create condensation on the outside of the glass while I swirled it. Normally too cold for my tastes, especially if I were eating food, but it softened the sugar a touch and made it even more refreshing. When I left Halifax the next morning, I picked up a bottle for $19 to bring back to Toronto.
If you aren't familiar with Ortega—that's okay, it isn't exactly a commercially exalted grape. It's almost always grown for practical purposes. It was created in Germany by crossing the grapes Müller-Thurgau and Siegerrebe and was named after a Spanish writer and philosopher. Ortega is grown modestly in places with freezing winters like Germany and Canada, because the vine is cold-hardy. It builds sugars quickly and is often dismissed because of its lower acidity. In marginal climates with short, cool growing seasons, sugar in the grape doesn't have a chance to get out of hand and my experience is that it can maintain acidity (Venturi Schulze on Vancouver Island makes a very racy Pinot Gris/Ortega blend called Sassi). Luckett Vineyards produces somewhere between 550 and 880 cases of Ortega per year. Also in Nova Scotia, Domaine de Grand Pré also makes an off-dry style Ortega, which I have yet to try.
I doubt Ortega could ever make a wine with layers of complexity that you could sit around and talk about. But in the hands of a producer like Luckett, it makes a delicious wine that you could swap out for the situations and pairings where you would normally reach for a Riesling. Luckett's Ortega is off-dry with white floral, peach, grapefruit and orange rind. It has refreshing, balanced acidity and 11.5% alcohol.