Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon…California invented grape varieties. Not literally, of course, but it was the California wine industry, in the first half of the 20th century, that popularized the idea of labeling wines with the name of the principal grape they contained.
Until then, the world’s wine regions favored geographical monikers or names of individual properties. Thus, the great red wines of Bordeaux were known not as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot but rather by the estates that produced them—Château Lafite Rothschild, and so forth. In Spain, Rioja was Rioja, not Tempranillo (its main constituent). Even California used place names: Wineshops were once full of California Chablis, Burgundy and Chianti—wishful-thinking borrowings from Europe.
Varietal labeling in California emerged after Prohibition, encouraged by some professors at the winemaking school at the University of California, Davis. The practice was adopted by influential wine merchant Frank Schoonmaker. Robert Mondavi took up the theme, and by the time the California wine industry really took off, in the 1970s, it was a given that its best wines would bear varietal names.
As these wines gained popularity, other regions picked up the idea, and today we reach for not just Chardonnay or Merlot from different countries but also for Australia’s Shiraz, Austria’s Grüner Veltliner, Spain’s Albariño, Argentina’s Malbec, France’s Viognier.
What are the next grape varieties one might want to get to know? I’ve been tasting—oh, all right, drinking—wine around the world for almost half a century, and based on my extensive (and not at all unpleasant) research, these are the “undiscovered” varietals I’ve come to like best.
WHITE WINE GRAPES
It comes as a surprise to many connoisseurs that Switzerland even produces wine. But does it ever. While its overall output is small—it ranked 23rd in the world in total liters produced, immediately below Croatia and Bulgaria—it turns out wines of sometimes astonishing quality, especially those from southwestern regions the Vaud and the Valais. And talk about obscure grape names: Petite Arvine, Amigne, Cornalin, Humagne (both Rouge and Blanc). The one to know, though, is Fendant, also called Chasselas. Wines featuring the versatile grape are round, faintly spicy and sometimes animated with a barely perceptible sparkle. The benchmark is Domaine Louis Bovard Dézaley Médinette Grand Cru ($50) from the Vaud; from the Valais, and easier to find, is the lighter Cave Caloz Fendant La Mourzière ($36).
The word sometimes used to describe wine made from the grape called Erbaluce is “pretty.” Dry and aromatic, the grape comes from Italy’s Piedmont region, where it’s grown mostly around the town of Caluso, near Turin. The acknowledged master of Erbaluce is Luigi Ferrando, whose Erbaluce di Caluso Cascina Carriola ($24) is sheer delight.
Soave, the northeastern Italian wine whose name means “sweet” or “soft,” used to be known as peasant plonk. Today’s best producers, however, have made it more serious by concentrating on one of the wine’s key grapes, Garganega. Though Pinot Bianco, Trebbiano and even some Chardonnay are also permitted in the wine, Soave that is all or mostly Garganega tends to shine brightest. Inama and Tamellini are among those that make a 100 percent Garganega Soave. Another all-Garganega wine worth trying, not labeled as Soave, is Roberto Anselmi’s subtly oaked Capitel Croce ($23), with hints of lemon, apple and almond.
The first time I tasted a good Godello—it was Viña Godeval ($20)—I thought I was sipping Chablis, and I don’t mean the cheap California imitation, but the flinty, Chardonnay-based original from Burgundy. Godello is the “other” white wine grape of Galicia, in northwestern Spain, less well known than Albariño, but to my mind capable of yielding better wines—ones with real structure and a distinctive finish.
Cava, the sparkling wine of the Penedès, in Spain’s Catalonia region, is traditionally made from a blend of three local grapes: Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo. The last of these, and the most aromatic, is used to produce a light, fresh, easy-to-drink white that works with most fish dishes. A nice choice is Albet i Noya Xarel-lo ($14).
Santorini, the storybook Greek island southeast of Athens, is increasingly known for its dry wine made from the native-born grape Assyrtiko. Now found on wine lists in Mediterranean-style restaurants around America, Assyrtiko produces wines with lively acidity and an attractive mineral character balancing its subtle fruit. Winemakers sometimes blend it with Sauvignon Blanc and other familiar grapes, but pure Assyrtiko is a great afternoon sipping wine and a perfect foil for grilled shellfish. The best-known producer is Gaia Wines; its Thalassitis Assyrtiko ($27) is definitive.
RED WINE GRAPES
The most widely planted red wine grape in Spain is the Tempranillo, basis of many fine reds from Rioja, Ribera del Duero and others. The second-most-favored grape is Bobal, from Utiel-Requena, inland from Valencia. Long used to make cheap wine, it has attracted the attention of serious vintners, like Isaac Fernandez, nephew of the winemaker at Vega-Sicilia—which produces one of Spain’s most famous and expensive reds. His Bovale ($14) is ruby red, intensely aromatic and both fruity and spicy on the palate.
The German-accented Alto Adige region, also known as South Tyrol, in far northeastern Italy, produces not only crisp, fragrant white wines but also reds, the most distinctive of which are made from a grape called Lagrein. Believed to be a relative of both Pinot Noir and Syrah, it yields wines that tend to be straightforward, earthy and tannic, with a dried-fruit intensity that stands up to rich pasta sauces and smoked meats. Franz Haas Lagrein ($36) is a first-rate interpretation.
Among the red-wine secrets of Spain are the areas of Valdeorras (also home to the aforementioned Godello) and Ribeira Sacra, both in the Galicia region. At their best, these wines, made from Mencía, can be elegant, delightfully fruity and just a pleasure to quaff. The same grape stars, too, in the neighboring Bierzo region of Castilla y León, where its wines can be softer, more fully perfumed and almost silky. Mencías de Dos Ambos ($40) is an excellent Bierzo entry. If it’s hard to find, try Descendientes de J. Palacios Petalos ($23).
Until the late 20th century, Sicily’s wine wasn’t much appreciated away from the island itself—usually, frankly, for good reason. The industry began to modernize in the 1950s, and today Sicilian wines have won global acclaim. Nero d’Avola, an old Sicilian variety, has been called “the prince of the oenological rebirth of Sicily.” It expresses itself as ripe, full of fruit and sometimes black-peppery in flavor. Burgers and hearty pasta dishes have few better friends. Morgante Nero d’Avola ($18) is just plain fun to drink.
Sagrantino, an ancient Italian variety planted in the Montefalco region of Umbria since the Middle Ages (when it was used by monks for altar wine), almost disappeared in the 1960s. In the 1970s and ’80s, as the international wine community started paying attention to regional Italian bottlings beyond Chianti and Barolo, enterprising growers in the area began replanting it. With modern winemaking techniques, they were able to coax real refinement out of a grape once known for producing harsh tannins and throat-searing alcohol. The wines are still tannic—sipping one even six or eight years old puckers your mouth—but they balance out the harshness with an astonishing concentration of fruit, earthy and a little wild, offering suggestions of dried cherries and licorice. A sterling illustration of Sagrantino is Milziade Antano Sagrantino di Montefalco ($50).
The Basques brought Tannat cuttings to Uruguay from southwestern France in the late 19th century and quickly learned that it did particularly well in its new home. Today it has become Uruguay’s signature red wine grape. Meanwhile, back in France, it’s the heart of the luscious red wines of Madiran, in the French southwest. Good Madiran—vintners sometimes blend the Tannat with Cabernet Franc—is dark red and tannic, with a pronounced blackberry–raspberry flavor. In Uruguay the grape tends to produce wines that are lighter and less tannic but still show hints of summer berries. A good Uruguayan is Viñedo de los Vientos Tannat ($16). The ultimate Madiran is Alain Brumont’s 100 percent Tannat Château Montus Prestige ($75).