There are more than 10,000 varieties of wine grapes in the world. Even the most studious Master of Wine or Master Sommelier could not name them all. And, the average wine drinker is probably familiar with a dozen, maybe a few dozen, of the wine grapes.
There is Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, the most popular for white wines. For red wines, there are Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera and Tempranillo, to name a few. But there are so many more wine grape varieties out there, most are indigenous to familiar wine regions, as well as lesser-known regions, and some are hybrids, new grapes that have been created. So, for my weekly virtual Wine Wednesday gathering, I asked everyone to share a unique/lesser known/unfamiliar wine variety that they like.
My pick was Encruzado, a white grape indigenous to the Dão region in Portugal. Encruzado is capable of producing exceptional white wines. In fact, it can be easily mistaken for a Premier Cru Chablis. Considered possibly Portugal’s finest white grape variety, it has been primarily used in blends. But Encruzado makes rich, full-bodied wines. It can have aromas of lemon, green papaya, passion fruit, stone fruit, and melon, as well as herbal, floral and mineral notes. Encruzado can be drunk young but also has the capacity to age.
The Flor de Nelas Emiliano Campos Encruzado Branco 2015 is fermented over 45 days and then aged in oak barrels for four months. The resulting wine is aromatic with notes of lemon, stone fruit and melon with floral overtones. On the palate, the wine is fresh with a textural mouthfeel and beautiful acidity. There is also a lot of minerality in this wine.
Kelly Cohen of Wine.com selected Charbono as her favorite obscure varietal because she calls it “lusciously drinkable.” Charbono, also known as Bonarda, is originally from the alpine vineyards of Savoie in eastern France. Today, there are less than 70 acres planted in California, primarily in Napa, as well as in Argentina, where it is called Bonarda.
The Summers Estate Charbono 2017 is sourced from the estate property in Calistoga. The wine, which has 12 percent Zinfandel blended in, is a deep purple color and has a robust, earthy flavor.
Michael Wangbickler of Balzac Communications picked the grape Chambourcin, a French-American hybrid that was commercialized in 1963. Chambourcin produces an easy drinking wine with cherry, red fruit and herbaceous notes and high acidity. It can be made into a dry style or an off-dry style.
The Montelle Winery 2009 Chambourcin is from Missouri. A dry red wine with aromas of blackberries, cassis, licorice and vanilla, it is full-bodied. Michael loves the wine’s “acidity and earthy character” and said that with 11 years of age on it, it was “still pretty damn good”.
Jim van Bergen of JVBUncorked chose Lagrein, an ancient grape variety indigenous to the Trentino-Alto Adige region in northeastern Italy. Lagrein tends towards low, irregular yields but it produces a wine that is fresh and acidic and can be described as somewhere between a Pinot Noir and a Syrah. The resulting wines are dense in color and full bodied with notes of plum and wild cherry.
The Muri-Gries Lagrein 2018 is made by Monks in an 11th century monastery near the Bremmer pass in Northern Italy, which was Austrian until post-World War II. Jim loves Lagrein because “it’s a cousin to Syrah but it reminds me of Pinot Noir because it has elegance and some elevated acidity and reticence about it.”
Christine Campbell of Girls Go Grape chose Ortega, a German hybrid that was developed in 1948 by Hans Breider in Germany. A cross of Müller-Thurgau and Siegerrebe, it was named in honor of the Spanish poet and philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. Ortega is a light yellow-skinned grape that produces an off-dry wine similar to Muscat. It has strong floral aromas and produces a fruit-forward wine. Ortega-based wines have low acidity and are often used in blends because of its aromas. A sturdy variety, it is not sensitive to frost and, therefore, can be found planted in Canada.
The Blue Grouse Estate Ortega 2019 Vancouver Island, B.C. VQA is grown in the Cowichan Valley, located on the southern part of Vancouver Island. Organically grown, the wine is off-dry with 3.2 residual sugar. Christine described it as “bright with orange peel, honeysuckle and a sensuous creamy finish. It is a great example of what the Cowichan Valley can do. The wine is lower on the acid but really pretty and delightful.”
Sarah Stierch picked Sumoll, a black grape variety that is native from the Penedès region in Catalonia, Spain. A rustic variety, it is drought resistant and used to produce red, white, rosé wines and cava (sparkling wine).
Sarah received the 2016 Gaintus Radical Sumoll in a wine club shipment and loves the wine for its weird, cult following. She described the wine as starting off “like drag racing rubber and evolves into black cherry with a touch of tannin.” While that may sound weird, she said “it’s fun and rare and intriguing.” Sarah recommends chilling it and drinking it as a “unique alternative to your poolside rosé all day.”
Jason Stubblefield of CorkEnvy opened a Lemburger, the German name for the grape Austrians call Blaufränkisch. Lemburger is a hardy, dark-skinned red wine grape that produces full-bodied, fruit-forward, peppery wines.
Lemburger can be found in Washington state and in New York’s Finger Lakes region but Jason selected the 2016 Carlson Vineyards Tyrannosaurus Red Lemburger from Colorado. Typical of the variety, he described the wine has having dark berry notes, a nice spice kick with well-balanced tannins and acid.
Megan Kenney opened a Kalecik Karasi from Turkey. Kalecik is a village northeast of Ankara in Central Anatolia. As there is a castle in the village, Kalecik Karasi means “black from the small castle”. The dark-skinned grape produces light- to medium-bodied red wines that are fresh and lively with crisp acidity and low tannins. Typical aromas are cherry, strawberry, raspberry and candy but the wine can also have gamey and herbaceous notes.
Megan was drinking the 2012 Vinkara Winery Reserve Kalecik Karasi from Turkey which has red fruit, spice and sweet vanilla pie notes.
Mary Beth Vierra of Crush Course Wine selected Mavrud, an indigenous variety from Bulgaria. It is likely that you have not heard of this grape, nor had a wine from Bulgaria, but Bulgaria was the fourth-largest wine producer in the world in the 1970s and 1980s, with 90 percent of production going to the Soviet Union. The wine industry suffered after the socialist regime fell in 1989 and started to rebuild only in 2000. Mavrud is described as similar to a lightly oaked Malbec and has aromas of rich crushed cherry and chocolate.
Mary Beth described the EM Mavrud Thrace Valley PGI, 2012 as “silky with med+ acid and juicy on palate with just enough grip.” While she expected an overripe, concentrated wine with big tannins, this wine was “very drinkable with more blue fruit (boysenberry, violets) on the nose and a long juicy finish.”
Thea Dwelle chose Moreno Ivančić Teran Vigna Nera, from Istria in Croatian as her wine. Teran is a Slovenian and Italian wine variety that Istria, the heart-shaped peninsula located at the top of the Adriatic Sea in Croatia, likes to claim as their own variety. Teran, aka Terrano, is a member of the Refosco family of grape varieties. Teran produces a wine with red berry and blood iron aromas as well as searing acidity.
Journalist Amy Sherman opened a sparkling Xinomavro, a dark-skinned grape that is widely planted in Northern Greece. Naoussa is the most important appellation for Xinomavro, considering one of the Greece’s greatest red wines and often compared to Barolo from Piedmont, Italy. Xinomavro, which translates to “acid and black” is a structurally big wine that is high in acid and high in tannin, with aromas of tomato, olive, spice and earthiness.
While Xinomavro is typically a still red wine, the grape is also made into a sparkling wine and Amy opened the Akakies Sparkling Xinomavro. She enjoyed drinking it and described it as “super bubbly, very acidic and tannic”.
Patrick Llerena Cruz of Locals Tasting Room selected Sagrantino, a grape that is indigenous to Umbria, specifically the town of Montefalco, in Italy. Known as central Italy’s most tannic red wine, the deeply colored grape showcases aromas that range from black cherry to ripe blackberry with spice and earth characteristics.
While indigenous to Italy, Sagrantino is also planted in Northern California and Patrick opened the Denier-Handal Sagrantino from the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma. Like in Italy, Sagrantino grown in California has rich tannins, ripe dark fruit flavors, floral notes and earthy aromas. Patrick enjoyed the Denier-Handal Sagrantino for its approachability. He described it as being made in a “California style with pump-overs and splashing so that the tannins are mitigated.”
With more than 10,000 grape varieties out there, exploring wine is never-ending. From time to time, branch out from beyond the wine grape varieties you are most familiar with and try a new one.
Allison Levine is owner of Please The Palate, a marketing and event-planning agency. A freelance writer, she contributes to numerous publications while eating and drinking her way around the world. Allison is also the host of the wine podcast Wine Soundtrack USA. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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