It’s a wide world of vitis vinifera out there, but which lesser-known native grapes are most worthy of more attention?
We’re not two months into 2019, and already SommSelect has offered wines from grapes such as Pelaverga (Piedmont, Italy), Xinomavro (Macedonia, Greece), and Kékfrankos (Slovakia!). Oh, and Piedirosso (Campania, Italy) and Loureiro (Vinho Verde, Portugal), too! I’d emphasize that these wines aren’t just “weird-for-weird’s-sake” novelties: These are delicious, well-made bottles from grapes and/or regions that have been, for whatever reason, overlooked. Just as we’re living in a “golden age” of television, with more shows than there is time to binge-watch them all, we’re in a golden age of fine wine, too. So, if you’re one of those wine drinkers content to stay within a few well-traveled lanes, I’ll say this: It’s time to branch out.
Infusions of new investment and new blood into once-stagnant wine regions has brought a surge of interest in traditional, often hyper-local, wine grapes. Whichever word you use—“native,” “indigenous,” or my personal favorite, “autochthonous”—there’s an ever-growing population of unique local varieties you need to know better.
There are enough of these in Italy alone to keep you busy for a long while, but we decided to cast a wider net here. And while the list could certainly be much longer, here’s an opinionated edit to set you on the path. As they say in basketball, you miss all the shots you don’t take!
The signature white of Greece’s Santorini Island isn’t merely of interest because of where and how it is grown: The whites it produces are deeply mineral and structured whites capable of aging—though really, the wines are so evocative and delicious young there’s no reason to wait. These are truly transporting, palate-enlivening white wines of real character, especially as interpreted by classic producers such as Sigalas and Hatzidakis.
Grown at higher elevations (up to 1,000+ meters) on the slopes of Sicily’s Mount Etna—and nowhere else, really—this floral, mineral, electric white is a true “cool-climate” variety in a place you might not readily expect one. A generation ago, producers all over Sicily were marketing high-octane Chardonnays as a means of attracting attention to the island’s vast potential, but the meteoric rise in popularity of Etna’s wines—whites and reds alike—has helped shift the focus to more local produce (from the western end of Sicily, whites such as Grillo, once used anonymously in blended, fortified Marsala wines, are also gaining traction). Carricante is the principal grape variety in Etna Bianco wines. Look for bottles from producers such as Graci; Benanti; and Ciro Biondi (all offered previously here on SommSelect).
One narrative you hear a lot in wine these days is that of the native grape rescued from obscurity or even extinction. The juicy, fleshy, fragrant Galician white, Godello, is one of the many rising stars in Spain’s dynamic northwestern corner (in fact, if this article was about up-and-coming regions rather than grapes, Galicia would be at the top of the list). Found as both a key ingredient in blends and as a varietal wine in DOs such as Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras, Godello produces textured, well-rounded whites buoyed by great freshness. The minerality is there, too, though it tends not to show as much “sea spray” character as Albariño. Check out the Ribeiro Blanco blends of Luis A. Rodriguez Vasquez; Guimaro’s Godello from Ribeira Sacra; and the Valdeorras gems of Valdesil, who farm the oldest Godello vines on earth.
We always look forward to visits from our SF Bay Area buddy Eric Danch, whose company, Blue Danube Wines, does the yeoman’s work of representing many ex-Iron Curtain wine nations: Hungary, Turkey, Slovakia, Croatia, and so on. He pulls out so many consonant-filled local gems it’s hard to settle on one, but a dry white we offered recently from the tiny region of Somló, in western Hungary, got us hooked on Hárslevelú (which is also blended with Furmint in the sweet nectars of Hungary’s Tokaji region). This aromatic white (the name translates to “linden leaf”) may remind you of some Alsatian whites from Riesling and/or Gewürztraminer, and, as grown in Somló especially, there’s the added sensation to deep volcanic minerality. Bott Frigyes and Fekete Pince are two producers of great dry versions to check out.
With the climate warming, wine regions once thought as “marginal” climates are rightly getting a fresh look. So it is with France’s Savoie, which supplies us with some serious high-energy whites. In terms of “noble” white grapes up in these Alpine-foothill vineyards, it’s a toss-up as to whether Altesse (a.k.a. Roussette) or Jacquère should be the variety of choice. Either way, the combination of delicate floral aromas, low alcohol, and profound mineral depth is not to be missed. These whites are like drinking with cupped hands from a mountain stream. We love the whites of Domaine des Ardoisières (amazing Chablis alternatives); Jean-François Quénard (in the Chignin appellation); and Marc Portaz (in Apremont).
Both Ian Cauble and myself visited Portugal in 2018, and a big takeaway for both of us is how interesting the wines of Vinho Verde are becoming. Although the Alvarinho grape is more readily associated with this place, Loureiro is no longer content to be second banana. We recently offered an outstanding Champagne-method sparkler from the variety, but it’s the dry ‘still’ whites that are poised to make a big splash among those who like crisp, dry, yet textured whites with no need for oak aging. Lots of exciting wines to try from producers such as Aphros, Anselmo Mendes, Quinta do Ameal, and Niepoort.
At this point, you will likely hear more talk about this northern Portuguese specialty than you’ll find bottled evidence of its excellence—but it’s a grape to watch nonetheless, thanks in large part to the enduring legend of Luis Pato, whose “Vinhas Velhas,” from the Bairrada region, has been the gold standard for years. Pato’s daughter, Filipa, launched her own Bairrada wine label in 2001 and has made a big splash with her own wines from the Baga grape, dubbed “the Nebbiolo of Portugal” by some. When producers manage the variety’s ferocious tannins, it can indeed be evocative of Barolo/Barbaresco, with long aging potential. We offered some 1995 Baga from Caves São João not long ago that was singing at 20+ years of age!
Blaufränkisch (a.k.a. Kékfrankos)
On sight alone, the deep color of the typical Blaufränkisch wine might lead you to think it’s a bigger wine than it is: Then you sip it and it’s a bright, buoyant, utterly refreshing style of red—dark-fruited, savory, smoky, spicy…but in no way heavy. Primarily associated with eastern Austria’s Burgenland, it’s also found in Hungary (where it’s called Kékfrankos), Croatia (Frankovka), and Germany (Lemberger), among other regions. The seamless mixture of black/blue fruit and earthy savor is very satisfying, and when you taste examples from producers such as Moric, Paul Achs, and Rosi Schuster, you see the grape’s potential for real nobility and longevity.
Schiava (a.k.a. Vernatsch)
Consider this one part of a personal mission on my part: As you probably know, there’s no place like Italy when it comes to distinctive, regionally specific native grapes. There are any number of them that could be included here—Pelaverga, Piedirosso, Teroldego, Lagrein, Ciliegiolo…the list goes on—but I picked Schiava for three reasons: (1) findability; (2) affordability; (3) drinkability. Grown in Italy’s Alto Adige/Südtirol, especially in the hills around Lake Caldaro, this light-bodied, low-alcohol, delicately spicy, brightly fruited red actually shows up on retail shelves—and is my first choice for icing down in a cooler right alongside the white wines and beers. This is utterly joyful mountain red, redolent of wild strawberries and wildflowers, for sipping alongside speck and other cured meats. Producers to look for: Nüsserhof, Erste & Neue, Mumelter, Elena Walch.
Northeast Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia region has become widely known for its white wines—and, more recently, its “orange” wines—but its reds are not to be ignored! For the longest time, this region, which was long part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, specialized in Bordeaux-style blends from the Cabernets and Merlot. But, of course, I find the native varieties infinitely more interesting—and of these, Schioppettino takes the crown. The grape’s dark, purplish hue, violet-scented aromas, and black-pepper savor suggest Syrah from the Northern Rhône; although there’s no genetic link, the resemblance is indeed strong. There weren’t many widely available examples even a few years ago, but the number seems to grow each year. Ronchi di Cialla is one of the great interpreters of the variety (sometimes labeling it by its other name, Ribolla Nera), but other bottles worth seeking out come from Adriano Gigante, Petrussa, and Bastianich.
This obscure blending variety from France’s Languedoc/Roussillon has become a cause célèbre in California—in fact, it may be more widely planted now in California than in its traditional homeland. Known in California as “Napa Gamay,” this exceptionally lightweight, floral, low-acid red makes what the cool people would call “crushable” wine: juicy, plush, refreshing vin de soif (“wine for thirst”) that we don’t see enough of in California. Check out Wind Gap’s aptly named “Soif” blend (35% Valdiguié) as well as varietal versions from Broc Cellars, Cruse Wine Co., Jolie-Laide, and Lioco, among others.
Again with the Nebbiolo comparisons—this Greek native is often called “the Nebbiolo of Greece” for its aromatic complexity and tannic structure. Grown in the northern region of Macedonia, most famously in the Naoussa PDO (denomination of origin), Xinomavro (pronounced ksee-NOH-ma-vroh) is not typically as tannic or alcoholic as Nebbiolo, but shares a similar push-pull of savory and sweet sensations—an aromatic mélange of raspberry, plum, tobacco, leather, warm spices and florals, wrapped up in a firm tannic embrace. Top producers include Kir-Yianni, Thymiopolous (seen here on SommSelect!), Chrisohoou Estate, Vaeni, and Alpha Estate.