When walking into just about any wine shop in the United States, you may find yourself a bit overwhelmed by options. Many bottles bear place names and technical terms in foreign languages, giving little or no guidance in the daunting wine selection process. Upon closer inspection, however, you will find that most of the bottles contain various combinations and incarnations of the same twenty or so grapes. Knowledge of these so-called “international” grape varieties allows the consumer to make educated guesses about what a wine will taste like--for example, it’s safe to assume that a wine made from Pinot Noir will be light and smooth, while a Cabernet Sauvignon is more likely to be full-bodied and structured.
But many of us who love wine are often not content to settle for the same old grapes day in and day out. Sure, we love to know that our reliable favorites are there to fall back on, but our literal and figurative thirst for exploration drives us to seek out new grapes the way adrenaline-junkies chase their next thrill. With more than 1,300 commercially relevant wine grapes currently planted throughout the world, half of the excitement is trying something new, while the other half is knowing there will always be something new to try.
Teran, a dark-skinned grape variety found today in Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy, produces deeply-colored, aromatic red wines with firm tannins and bright acidity. Naturally rich in iron and heart-healthy anthocyanins, Teran wine was observed by Pliny the Elder to have medicinal qualities, a belief now supported by modern medicine. It is particularly helpful in the treatment of anemia. Livia, the wife of the Roman emperor Augustus, credited the wine for her impressive eighty-two-year lifespan.
A highly acidic white grape variety from the Greek island Santorini, Assyrtiko is admired for its distinctive minerality. Strong winds threaten to blow the grapes off of their wines on the volcanic island they call home. To protect their crop, vineyard managers must train the vines into tight “nests” that shelter fruit from the breezes of the Aegean Sea.
Having an already-familiar frame of reference is a fairly reliable way to determine whether you will enjoy a particular new variety. This month, we are attempting to demystify several somewhat obscure grapes by comparing them to those we all know and love.
A grape that has long enjoyed popularity in northern Italy, southern France, and on the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, Vermentino is now starting to gain traction in California vineyards. It produces bright, lively, and aromatic wines that serve as a more complex alternative to Pinot Grigio.
Our Pick: 2013 Matthiasson "Tendu" Vermentino, California (1L), $19
Inspired by Austria's ubiquitous green one-liter, crown-capped bottles of highly quaffable Grüner Veltliner, Steve Matthiasson has created any easy-drinking, zippy Vermentino, blended with small amount of Cortese and Arneis, that begs to be enjoyed outdoors on a sunny day. Citrus, pear, and minerality round out the palate, while hints of white flowers and herbs add complexity to the nose.
Although the wines of neighboring Croatia have been getting a fair bit of attention in the worldwide market lately, those of Bosnia and Herzegovina have thus far remained under the radar. This is unfortunate, since the region's most famous grape, Žilavka, produces high-quality, well-balanced white wines with high concentration, fresh acidity, a slightly nutty flavor and surprising age-worthiness.
Our Pick: 2012 Brkić Čitlučka Žilavka, Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina, $18
Fermented with native yeast, aged briefly on the lees and bottled unfiltered, this approachable, pear- and tarragon-scented Zilavka made from organic grapes is an intriguing alternative to the more pungent Sauvignon Blanc.
One of the aforementioned varieties born of Gouais Blanc and Pinot, Romorantin has always lived life in the shadow of its much more popular sibling Chardonnay. Though once grown widely in the Loire Valley, Romorantin plantings are now confined to the tiny appellation of Cour-Cheverny. Like Chardonnay, its wines' styles can vary greatly with terroir and winemaker influence, but typically present are mouthwatering acidity, pronounced minerality, and bright flavors of tart green apple.
Our Pick: 2011 Domaine Philippe Tessier Cour-Cheverny Blanc, Loire, France, $22
Rich, complex, and beautifully textured, this is a wine that is hard to dislike. Crisp, clean flavors of fresh apple and citrus mingle on the palate with hints of spice, honey, and white flowers on the nose. The finish is long and silky. This wine bears resemblance not only to lean, stony Chablis, but also to rich, concentrated Loire Valley Chenin Blanc. It is likely to delight fans of either.
Before the Bordeaux varieties made it big in Chile in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Paìs, one of the first grapes brought to the Americas by Spanish missionaries, was king. Light-bodied, rustic, and low in extract due to thin skins, this grape has generally been relegated to the role of jug wine producer. Some winemakers, however, have seen potential in Paìs, using carbonic maceration to tame potentially astringent tannins while highlighting the bright fruit flavors.
Our Pick: 2010 Louis-Antoine Luyt "Pais de Quenehuao," Maule Valley, Chile, $20
Native Burgundian Louis-Antoine Luyt is one of Paìs' strongest proponents. He follows a philosophy of terroir-driven, minimal-intervention, natural winemaking, working with independent growers throughout the Maule Valley to source fruit from dry-farmed, organically tended vineyards. The result is a light-colored red wine with surprisingly complex flavors and aromas of tangy red and purple fruit, exotic spice, sweet earth, dried flowers, stony minerality, and just the right amount of "funk" that one might expect from a natural wine.
This delightfully "pretty" wine suffers from a bit of an identity crisis: it is known by three different names, depending on where it's made. In Germany, it goes by "Trollinger," In Italy's Alto Adige region it is called "Vernatsch," and elsewhere in Italy it is referred to as "Schiava." Despite the confusing moniker, these wines are worth deciphering. Though much lighter-bodied than its cousin Syrah, several parallels can be drawn: deep, brambly berry flavors, floral perfume, subtle earthiness, and warm spice abound in the best examples of each.
Our Pick: 2012 Franz Gojer Vernatsch 'Alte Reben,' Südtirol, Italy, $18
From very old vines grown at high altitude, this wine displays bright acidity and classic flavors of strawberry, pomegranate, tart cherry, and herbs, with pronounced aromas of violet petals, almond, and peppery spice. For maximum enjoyment, serve slightly chilled.
Made from grapes grown high above the Adige river in the small village of Niklas, this wine benefits from the increased complexity lent by extra elevation. A lovely rose-scented nose gives way to a palate that is light in body but not on flavor, with notes of raspberry, red cherry, orange peel, and white pepper, with lively minerality at the core.
This is where things get a little complicated, but bear with us. Though many people think of Zinfandel as a classic American grape, its origins are actually in Croatia, where it is known as Crljenak Kaštelanski, or, less intimidatingly, Tribidrag. Plavina is a direct descendent of Tribidrag that shares many of its characteristics, but the resulting wines are lower in alcohol, lighter in body, and earthier in flavor than most American Zinfandels.
Our Pick: 2010 Bibich R6 Riserva, North Dalmatia, Croatia, $18
This fresh, attractive red from Croatia's Dalmatian coast marries Plavina with equal parts Babić and Lasin (also relatives of Zinfandel), resulting in a wine that boasts flavors and aromas of dark berries, plums, tobacco, cherry kirsch, with hints of smoke and dried Mediterranean herbs--and clocking in at under 13% alcohol.
Discounted six-pack price: $92
Actual retail value: $115