As a wine-producing nation with widely divergent soils and climates, the United States has adopted literally dozens of grape varieties from other countries (mainly Europe) to make into wine.
Some U.S. wines mimic the best wines of the old country, where wine rose hundreds of years ago from an outback hobby into a major industry.
The U.S. wine culture, one of the world’s youngest, has relied on a few grapes for its table wines. Wine regions in many other areas make table wines from far more grape varieties than most Americans ever imagined.
Today, thanks to greater dissemination of winemaking information (the Internet) and greater access to better equipment (cheaper shipping), wines from dozens of emerging nations are better than ever and many are arriving here without fanfare.
Today, we see wines made from some of the most obscure grapes. Here is a short primer on some of these emerging areas and grapes:
Italy: Most wine lovers know Italian Pinot Grigio, the simple dry white wine; Chianti (from Tuscan Sangiovese) and Piemonte’s Barolo and Barbaresco (from Nebbiolo).
But Italy grows hundreds of different grapes, from Val d’Aosta in the north to Campania in the south. Few of their wines are imported here, but those that are can be superb.
Among the top red wines is the lighter, tarter Barbera, with superb food compatibility.
Rivaling Barolo for aging potential is the locally revered dark red wines from Basilicata in the south made from Aglianico (the “g” is silent). And Sagrantino, the deeply tannic, long-lived red of Umbria, is a joy to anyone tiring of the New World’s latest trick (sweeter, drink-now reds).
Both are best a decade after the vintage. To drink now, decant for four to six hours(!) before trying them with hearty meat pastas or rich cheeses.
New Zealand: Most wine lovers know the greatness of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir from this cool, southern hemisphere twin-island nation.
For me, the most excitement in New Zealand is the rapid development of Cabernet Franc and Syrah as potential kiwi stars.
Germany: Since I adore Germany’s greatest wine, Riesling, I might sound traitorous to suggest there are two more Germanic varieties I love as much.
The yet-to-be widely discovered are the grapes Silvaner (white) and Spätburgunder (red or pink). The former is generally austere, a dry, angular wine; the latter is the German name for Pinot Noir. Both are fascinating for different reasons.
Silvaner usually has a stony or steely aroma and a lemon-y finish. Spätburgunder is similar to red Burgundy and often less expensive.
Australia: Most Americans know of the greatness of Shiraz, from the warmer Barossa Valley and the cool-climate minerally Rieslings of a half dozen regions.
Two other great wines, both a bit obscure here, are Semillon, a lean, dry, age-worthy white wine from the Hunter Valley, and the amazing dessert wine from remote Rutherglen called Muscat (the Aussies say muss’-kit).
Semillon exists in some West Coast vineyards, and several California and Washington wineries make a wine from it, or blend it with Sauvignon Blanc. But almost no U.S.-made Semillons approach the remarkably sublime Hunter Valley style, which can be interesting when young, but really calls for a decade of aging before it reaches an early peak and lives on years after!
Rutherglen, hours north of Melbourne, grows an obscure, ancient black variant of the normally flowery white Muscat.
The Port-like Australian Muscats (Aussies often call them “stickies”) are fortified and unctuously sweet. They’re endowed with an astoundingly complex aroma and taste that’s similar to a cross between cream sherry and Port.
Spain: This warmer country has more grapevines (nearly 3 million acres) than any other country. The most widely planted, Tempranillo makes the country’s best-known red wine, Rioja.
The lesser-known region Rias Baixas in Atlantic Ocean-adjacent Galicia makes a delicate, wildly spiced white wine called Albariño, which grows also in Portugal and there is spelled Alvarinho.
Spain is also home to Jerez in the south, which makes some of the best value aperitif and dessert wines, Fino and Cream Sherry, respectively. In terms of the difficulty of making it, Sherry may be the world’s best wine value.
Portugal: The home of Port and now some sensational value red wines from local grapes, Portugal also has recently revived Vinho Verde, and it’s better than ever. A dry, low-alcohol white (10 percent-11 percent), it’s rarely more than $10 a bottle.
South Africa: One of the oldest wine-making nations in the world, South Africa makes many popular wines. The two South Africa is best known for are both fairly priced, the dry-ish to sweet Chenin Blanc and a lighter red called Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault.
Austria: Austria is developing a cult following here for a white wine called Grüner Veltliner, often slightly sweet and not unlike Riesling – though German wine lovers would violently disagree!
Best bet: In a fine wine shop, tell a clerk you’d like to try something you never herd of before. Many California wineries now are adopting some of the obscure grapes. This may not work if the clerk is 22.
Discovery of the Week: 2017 Tyrrell’s Semillon, Hunter Valley ($20) – Good entry-level Australian Semillons are hard to find in the U.S. This long-time producer continues to make its in a traditional style, harvesting grapes very early (only 11 percent alcohol in the wine). The aroma offers grapefruit and a trace of lime, with a faint hint of lanolin, which should grow as the wine ages. It has no oak. Semillon made this way probably will be best at 10 years! (I’ve had great 20- to 25-year-old bottles!) Consumed now, it’s best served just cool; too cold and the wine’s subtle nuances may be lost.