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 are 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.
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.
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 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.