The majority of wines available in the United States are made from only a handful of grape varieties. Most wine drinkers are familiar with such superstars as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Grigio, but haven’t had a chance to explore some of the lesser known varieties. According to the definitive new book Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, and José Vouillamoz, there are nearly 1,400 grapes being used for making commercial wine around the world. When faced with such an expansive diversity of grape varieties, knowing where to begin can seem difficult. This post will take familiar wines and use them as a comparison to introduce you to some varieties you may not have experienced. Let’s venture off the beaten path and peruse some of the great, lesser known grapes.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Ribera del Duero (Tempranillo)
Perhaps the most famous, and certainly one of the most highly regarded grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon is ubiquitous – produced in nearly every corner of the viticultural word. Its full body, bright acidity, high tannins, and ease of cultivation have made it a favorite for wine drinkers and winemakers alike. If you’re a Cab lover, you should try wines from the Spanish region of Ribera del Duero. Unlike in the New World, most European wines are labelled according to where they were grown, rather than for their specific grape composition. Ribera del Duero is made from the indigenous Spanish grape Tempranillo, which has many styles around the country, but can have a particularly Cab-like character in certain areas. Ribera del Duero tends to be dark in color, with rich, dark fruit flavors – often with oaky notes – and strong, but smooth tannins. The climate is relatively warm, producing wines that are well ripened and appeal both to lovers of Bordeaux and Napa Valley. Ribera del Duero is pretty commonly available and should be a great joy to drinkers of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Zinfandel and Negroamaro
Many viticulturists, or scientists who study grapes and vines, believe that Zinfandel may have its origins in Southern Italy. A local grape in Puglia – the heel of the Italian boot – called Primitivo, has very similar genes to Zinfandel and may even be the same variety. If you’re a lover of the deep, fruity Zinfandels of California, perhaps you would enjoy sampling the Southern Italian grape known as Negroamaro. Literally translating to “black, bitter,” Negroamaro can be very full bodied, with a deep, dark color, notes of opulent fruit, and somewhat subdued acidity, translating to a wine that can be enjoyed by Zinfandel fans. Negroamaro is also one of the best value wines around, partially because it is widely produced, but not well known.
Pinot Noir and Gamay
Pinot Noir has a fanatical following around the world. Its delicacy, gracefulness, food pairing potential, and fashionability make it the grape of choice for many US consumers. Gamay stands out as a lighter bodied alternative to Pinot Noir. Those who have had Gamay might not be aware of it, because it is usually labelled by its place of origin rather than grape type. Beaujolais, located in the far south of the Burgundy region, is by far the most famous source of Gamay. Beaujolais’ reputation is unfortunately hampered by its lowest quality product, Beaujolais Nouveau, which is an inexpensive, one-dimensional wine released yearly on the third Thursday of November, and often enjoyed in the United States alongside Thanksgiving dinner. While Beaujolais Nouveau can be pleasant, it is by no means representative of the best that the area has to offer. Aside from Nouveau, there are three levels of quality: Beaujolais, Beaujolais Village, and Beaujolais Grand Cru. Grand Cru Beaujolais comes from ten villages known for superior vineyards, and offers an excellent alternative to top quality Pinot Noir.
Chardonnay and Marsanne
One of the charms of Chardonnay is its ability to grow in almost any viticultural climate, and to take on a wide variety of styles depending on winemaking and terroir. Chardonnay is generally full bodied and oak aged, with a rich golden color and flavors of orchard fruit. One of the grapes that shares these characteristics is Marsanne, which is best known from the Rhône Valley of France. Marsanne is commonly available and often blended with other grapes. Oak is used occasionally with Marsanne, but most examples will resemble unoaked or lightly oaked Chardonnay.
Pinot Grigio and Muscadet
The popularity of Pinot Grigio has exploded in recent decades, due to its easy-drinking, food-friendly nature and relatively affordable price. If you like Pinot Grigio, you should try wines from the region of Muscadet in the Loire Valley of France. Muscadet is made from a grape known as Melon de Bourgogne, which, ironically, is not grown in Burgundy. Muscadet is sometimes aged “Sur Lie”, meaning it’s allowed to age on the leftover yeast from the fermentation process – resulting in a slightly fuller body and richer flavor. Generally, Muscadet will be dry, crisp, refreshing, clean, and reasonably priced.
Sauvignon Blanc and Verdicchio
The central eastern Italian region of Marche produces some of the most under appreciated white wines in the world, from a grape called Verdicchio. Its bright, crisp, citrusy flavors make it the perfect wine for lovers of Sauvignon Blanc. Verdicchio is grown in vineyards close to the Adriatic sea, and can have a slight salinity, which pairs perfectly with seafood. It also works well as an aperitif. Slightly drier than Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand, it is a closer match to Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé, and will be a welcome addition to any white wine lovers cellar.
The world of wine is vast. For those willing to explore outside their comfort zone, there are wonderful and new experiences on the horizon. Hopefully, after trying some of the wines mentioned above, you will be rewarded with a new favorite region or grape. Grab a glass and enjoy!