Two decades ago, at a small cafe in Collio Orientali in northern Italy, I ordered a red wine that was reasonably priced, and I was pleasantly surprised. It tasted sort of like Zinfandel and was a charming accompaniment to my pasta.
The wine waiter, who fortunately spoke rather good English, told me the wine was a local Refosco, a grape I hadn't yet heard about and seemed rather tasty.
This wasn't an isolated story. As years passed, I found myself drawn to many of the obscure grape varieties, for reasons that continue to make me excited about wines.
It happened again at Wine Press Northwest's Platinum Judging, when I got jazzed by Cana's Feast Winery's Counoise, a no-account grape of the Rhone that makes a lovely rose and rarely makes a red wine worth gurgling over.
But I gurgled. The 2008 Cana's Feast Counoise was loaded with black pepper, clove and red cherry fruit, and though it had a light color, the flavors were impeccable.
Then there was a Carmenere that got me excited since it had a typical peppery, blueberry aroma and a fascinating acid-tannin ratio that leaned on the former, not the latter.
Obscure grapes are not precluded from making a great wine, but the number scorers who dote on alcoholic Cabernet Sauvignons and black Syrahs and oaky Chardonnays and who ignore the greatness of Chenin Blanc and even Carignane, are simply missing why we call them grape varieties. Because they add variety to wine.
Imagine how boring is it to taste 10 or a dozen 95-to-100-point red wines. There is a striking similarity to them all, and ultimately a rather significant amount of boringness. (I did this once and believed I had fallen into a stupor. I had to run out and have a glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to revive myself.)
Not all of the thousands of grapes that are used to make table wine around the world can make a great wine. Foja Tonda, Airen, Pais, Criollo, Malvasia Bianca and hundreds of others are grapes that can be relied upon to make a tasty wine and little more. (Some aren't even very tasty.)
But there are lot of obscure grapes that can make great wines if treated properly. Here are a few.
French Colombard: This superb little grape has been disparaged for a long time for all the wrong reasons. It has a fascinating citrus and spice character to its aroma, holds its acidity well and can make a delightful white wine. Yannick Rousseau in the Napa Valley makes a dry version each year that is a stunner.
Grenache: A grape widely planted in France's Rhone Valley as well as in Spain (where it's called Garnacha) and Australia, the wine it can make is usually best from ancient vines. This fragrant red wine grape can add astounding complexity when blended with Syrah/Shiraz (or almost any other red variety!), and on its own can make a delicious red or pink wine. Rarely heavy and concentrated (often it's rather light in color), it can make a delightful early-drinking pale red wine. The grape has the aroma of cranberry and pomegranate, occasionally with black pepper.
Gruner Veltliner: This white grape shows best in Austria, offering a light, pleasingly dry white wine that can pair nicely with appetizers and especially with Asian foods. Some even have the sweetness to work with light desserts. There is a faintly exotic note to many of these wines, which are not unlike a wine with Riesling added. I have had 10-year-old versions that are superb.
Torrontes: A Spanish/Argentine grape that's part of the Malvasia family of aromatic graopes, it has a spice component that's not unlike a steely Pinot Gris or Muscat. Usually dry and on the lean, steely side, this flavorful white wine is a classic accompaniment for grilled seafood or sauteed trout.
Arneis: A delicate white grape from Italy's northern district of Piedmont, Arneis once made a wine that oxidized easily and was rather bland in aroma. Over the last 20 years, a number of producers (mainly Ceretto, with a wine called Blange) have made splendid white wines with this lower-acid grape that arrive fresh and crisp. Many bear the name Roero Arneis, a district in northwestern Piedmont that is rapidly coming into its own as a fine-wine region. Ponzi in Oregon annually produces an Arneis.
Roero: The red wine counterpart to Arneis, Roero is not a grape but a region, and the red wine it makes is made entirely of the regal grape Nebbiolo. Because the region it comes from is a bit cooler than its cousins Barolo and Barbaresco, the wine is typically made a bit lighter and more elegant. Good Roero red wines (two great ones are from Deltetto and Matteo Coreggia) age nicely for five to 10 years, and their great benefit is price.
Semillon: This is the primary white grape of Sauternes, where it produces wonderful sweet wines. But it also flourishes in numerous areas of Washington and Australia as well as a few special plantings in California. Made dry, the wine typically has lower alcohol (rarely more than 11 percent in Australia!) and a slight fig and wet hay sort of aroma. It tends to age nicely. Semillons from Columbia, Hogue, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest in Washington are usually worth trying.
They may be obscure grapes to you, but they represent excitement to me.