A Lesson in Lesser Known Wine Grapes
Wine consumption has exploded in the United States over the last decade. In 2009 we became the number one consumer of wine (by volume) consuming more than 750 million gallons. But of that number, almost 90% of the wines consumed were made up of one or more of the following grapes: Riesling, Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio), Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (Shiraz).
With more than 5000 grape varieties used in wine production, we are going to present a few of the lesser-known wine grapes you may want to try.
Aligote is a white wine producing grape varietal native to the Burgundy region of France. Often referred to as Burgundy's "other" white grape, it’s less popular than Chardonnay. Aligote is thin-skinned and well known for its acidity.
Beyond wine, Aligote is known for its role in the production of Kir, a French liqueur from Burgundy made of white wine (Aligote) and black currants. Outside of Burgundy, the grape is gaining popularity in Eastern Europe and ex-soviet countries with plantings in Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia.
Picpoul, meaning "lip stinger," is an ancient grape varietal native to Languedoc. After Phylloxera devastated Europe in the 19th century, the grape became almost extinct. It was revived in the 20th century by the Vermouth industry. Today the grape's popularity continues to grow, and when done well makes fabulous crisp whites in the Midi, specifically from the Coteaux du Langeudoc Picpoul de Pinet. The wines from Picpoul de Pinet are dry, medium to full-bodied, and have refreshing acidity with lemon flavors.
Verdejo is regarded as one of the highest quality white wine producing varietals in Spain. The grape, native to Spain, grows best in the Rueda region. In Rueda, the grape is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc to make full-bodied whites that can age for the better part of a decade. Verdejo should not be confused with Verdelho, the Portuguese grape used in the production of Madeira.
Petit Verdot is a thick-skinned red wine producing grape varietal native to Bordeaux, France. In Bordeaux, the grape is planted in small quantities and is mainly used by the most quality-conscious left bank producers in their blends. When used in blending, the grape adds color, depth, structure, and a perfume-like characteristic.
Producers in California also use the grape in blends, but single varietal examples also exist. When made on its own, the wines produced are age-worthy, displaying a big, robust, tannic profile with spicy characteristics. Outside of France and California, the grape also grows in Australia, specifically Riverland. Small plantings of the grape also exist in Chile.
Nobody ever strolled into a winery looking to taste Petit Manseng. Merlot, chardonnay, even Riesling, sure. But an obscure grape from the French region of Jurançon, unknown even to most Frenchmen? You couldn't sell it. So why plant it?
A native of the Jurançon region in the foothills of the French Atlantic Pyrenees, the small-berried, thick-skinned Petit Manseng grape from which this white wine is made, is more highly regarded than its larger-berried sibling, Gros Manseng. As Petit Manseng’s small berries yield very little juice, they are not harvested until late autumn. By this time the grapes have shriveled, and their sugar content is at its most concentrated. This is the process known in French as ‘passerillage’. Brilliantly straw-yellow in color, the wine is intensely aromatic, fruity and spicy on the nose, fresh, crisp and flinty on the palate.
Sagrantino is native to the hills around Montefalco, an ancient city in central Umbria. In the “green heart of Italy,” the grape achieves its truest expression. The unique microclimate features cooling mountain breezes called tramontano, tempered by hot sunny days.
During medieval times, Sagrantino, translated to “sacrament”, was first cultivated by local monks for religious rites. The resulting wine is now known as Sagrantino Passito, sweet version that has aromas of black raspberry with notes of bittersweet chocolate on the finish.
Over the following centuries, Sagrantino was typically only used during religious feasts and farmers’ festivals. By the 1960s, the grape had virtually disappeared. Luckily, a handful of viticulturists recognized its value and reintroduced it to their vineyards, playing with the production process. Sagrantino finally achieved DOC status in 1978 and DOCG in 1992. When you order a glass of Sagrantino today, you’ll likely be greeted with Sagrantino Secco. In the glass, the wine is an inky maroon shade. The bouquet reveals aromas of dark red fruits with hints of earth and spice; on the palate, the full-bodied wine is highly tannic with notes of blackberry.
Ask wine fans about Tokaji and they will tell you about Hungary’s famous sweet white wine. Ask them about Furmint and most will have a puzzled look. Tell them it is the white grape that makes sweet Tokaji and they will nod. Add that Furmint also produces a lovely dry wine and nearly all will be surprised. The name Furmint may have been taken from the word "froment" for the wheat-gold color of the wine it produces.
Yes, there is a dry Furmint, and it is beginning to bring new fame to the Furmint grape. For centuries, Hungary made sweet Tokaji from the grape that earned international fame. In the last 20 years, and particularly since the year 2000, the modern version of dry Furmint was born. Balanced acidity is one of the most important characteristics of a wine, with its refreshing quality adding to the appeal of its taste and a major factor in helping it to age well.
The pinot blanc grape originated from the Alsace region of France. It was modified from the pinot grigio grape, which is a variation of the pinot noir grape. This relationship between the two white wines and the famous red explains the shared name.
In France, it is known as pinot blanc, and in Italy, it is pinot bianco. No matter which name you use, this varietal of white wine grape produces a medium-dry to dry white wine that is familiar throughout the world.
Pinot blanc is very similar to a chardonnay in that it has a medium to full body and light flavor. It is characteristically high in acidity, which lends it a sour to tart profile. It's quite a lively wine. Pinot blanc's lighter flavors often include citrus, melon, pear, apricot, and perhaps smoky or mineral undertones.
Gamay, a long-maligned grape varietal grown predominantly in the Beaujolais region of France, is finally getting the respect it deserves. Gamay’s substandard reputation dates to the late 14th century, when the Duke of Burgundy decreed the grape’s exile from that region in France (he didn’t like the grape’s flavor), declaring it "despicable and disloyal," thus paving the way for Pinot Noir’s reign. But in the southern part of Burgundy, in the area known as Beaujolais, the Duke’s edict was ignored, and winemakers continued planting Gamay.
Ruby-tinged and light-bodied, American gamay noir is a red that's as refreshing as most rosés but it’s more satisfying and livelier. Its fruity character and high acidity make it great for pairing with grilled meats and vegetables. It benefits from a slight chill of about half an hour in the fridge or ice bucket.
The name Raboso is thought to be derived from the Italian word rabbioso, which means angry; this could be a reference to how people responded to the aggressive tannins and acid structure of wines made from this variety. It’s more plausible the grape takes its name from the Raboso river (Piave) which flows through Veneto’s eastern Treviso province.
Raboso was one of the most popular grape varieties in the past and it was grown in Eastern Veneto before the Roman Empire. Due to its strong character and superb resistance to aging as well as transport, it was known among travelers as “wine of travel” or in their native language “vin de viajo”. To get the best out of it, a winemaker must be patient and ready to accept the challenge but careful harvesting and winemaking techniques can yield a balanced, fresh red wine with blackcurrant and herb scents.
For those of us who love red wine and need an excuse to drink even more of it, consider the grape called Bobal, which is loaded with one of the highest concentrations of resveratrol. Depending upon which studies you’re reading (or ignoring), resveratrol might be an anti-aging antioxidant that might be beneficial for cardiovascular health.
The word Bobal derives from bovale, meaning “bull” for its large grape bunches that resemble a bull’s head. Historically, this hardy, thick-skinned grape has been admired for producing full-bodied wines that are intensely-colored and rich with forest fruit.
Notable for dark fruit flavors like plum, blueberry, prune, fig, and blackberry, Bobal pairs well with rich stews and casseroles, oily fish, and barbequed meats—and especially paella, Valencia’s signature dish. Let’s take a sip from three Bobal wines that work beautifully during the spring and summer seasons.
We put this list together to showcase a few "off the beaten path" varietals. As we mentioned earlier there are thousands of grapes used to make wine, these were the ones we felt gave a small taste of what is out there.
You may have tasted wines made from these varietals before or seen them on shelves. Perhaps you didn't even realize it. They can make for great values in some cases because you don't have to pay for the name. As United States wine consumption continues to grow, so will retail sales. An increase in wine sales will force many overwhelmed retailers to hire wine geeks or pay closer attention to the global market and start looking for interesting wines.
What an interesting case you would have if you found one of each of the above. If you have a chance to try some of these wines or if there are any "lesser known" grapes you like, please let us know by posting a comment on the blog, or contacting us on Facebook.