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The next nine
The best grapes you never heard of

Wine drinkers tend to be creatures of habit, which is why 10 leading red and 10 leading white grape varieties account for an overwhelmingly vast percentage of the wines made in the world. There’s some room for quibbling over which varieties these are, but most wine folks would probably concur with this list: cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, grenache, merlot, nebbiolo, pinot noir, sangiovese, syrah, tempranillo, and zinfandel for reds, and chardonnay, chenin blanc, gewürztraminer, muscat, pinot blanc, pinot gris, riesling, sauvignon blanc, sémillon, and viognier for whites. These grapes are the most flavorful, and the wines made from them may well be the best: they are the easiest to find, they provide the most value for the dollar, they go great with food, they are familiar. They are what we drink.

Then there are the rest of the grapes used to make wine, most of which neither you nor anyone else who is not a certified wine expert has ever heard of.

Why should you care about all these obscure grapes when there are so gosh-darned many wines to choose from in that Top 10 list? It’s a good question, and the short, honest answer is, maybe you shouldn’t. We like to drink what we know, and there’s nothing really wrong with that. But for many of us, every glass of wine is an adventure. We don’t care so much what the name of the wine is but, rather, how it tastes. Indeed, before Robert Mondavi and his followers introduced the concept of labeling according to vine variety, most wine drinkers weren’t as interested in what grape the wine came from as in who made it, and in what year.

Besides, many of the Top 10 were not tops at all a century or two ago. Tastes change, new vineyard sites are planted, diseases and glassy-winged sharpshooters wreak havoc on certain vines. What we drink so fondly and incessantly now may not be what our grandchildren will serve us someday. It is nice to have a sense of what other grapes are growing around the world. So I have made a list of the “Next Nine” — grapes that have some historical significance, or that make unheralded wines, as well as the up-and-coming varieties that may eventually produce some of the world’s greatest wines.

Among red grapes, the Italian barbera — particularly those from Asti and Alba — makes very meaty wines. They have a sour finish, like unripe garnet cherries, but are coveted for their food-pairing potential. Bonarda is another Italian variety now rocking people’s worlds in its Argentine embodiment (Tikal’s Corazon is probably the finest Argentine wine made primarily from this grape): it yields a bright, chewy, fruity wine that’s easy to quaff. Carignane is the commonest grape in France, and is most often used for blending; but when well cared for, it makes some delicious, earthy wines, with thick, dark fruit flavors. Catawba is native to America, and was the key grape in the country’s first wine region, Ohio, where sparkling catawba is made to this day. Charbono is another American native; Summers Ranch in Napa uses it in an excellent varietal, with a fruit core and an awesome finish. Cinsaut, like carignane, is a popular blending grape; it adds earthy notes to syrah and grenache-based blends. Gamay is the grape used to make Beaujolais; it’s light, but it can make wines of seductive complexity or bold fruitiness. Mourvèdre, like carignane and grenache, is a widely produced grape that blends nicely with deeper and more flavorful varieties. Finally, teroldego, from the north of Italy, makes a deep, licorice-like wine, with plenty of green around the gills but the ability to age.

As far as whites are concerned, albariño makes one of northern Spain’s finest wines — a wonderful companion to seafood, shellfish, even stews like a cioppino or paella. Aligoté is the number-two white grape of Burgundy (after chardonnay) and yields the proper wine for making a kir — it is fruity and light, not particularly distinguished, but a nice glass nonetheless. Arneis is an Italian variety that always reminds me of fennel. Folle blanche, a workhorse that’s the third-most-widely-planted grape in France, used to be the premier component of cognac, but it has been supplanted in that respect by ugni blanc. Marsanne is a Rhône native, yielding wines that are fleshy and flowery upon release but achieve, after a decade or so in the bottle, a pleasant nutty-citrusy flavor favored by Rhône lovers. Melon de Bourgogne makes Muscadet (and was often confused in the US with pinot blanc), and at its best gives us some of the most refreshing beverages known to man. Müller-Thurgau, a notable German variety (also grown in Austria and Northern Italy), is fruity and on the lean side (it’s often crossed with riesling to make hybrids). Roussanne, another Rhône white, can be redolent of almonds and apricots. Trebbiano, also called ugni blanc in France (where it is the backbone of most fine cognacs), is the grape in Orvieto, Soave, and Frascati, a mild variety that in skilled hands can make winning wines.

New worlds are discovered by those who go looking for them. Try wines made from some of these more obscure grapes, and you’ll see what I mean.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

Issue Date: June 21-28, 2001

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