What are your three or five favourite “uncommon” wine varietals?
Such a tough question. There are too many to choose from, and my selections can change almost daily depending on my mood. But it’s a great mental exercise. There are literally more than 1,000 grape varieties used in commercial wine production. Alas, all but a small minority are widely and regularly available. We all know the pop stars, such as chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, pinot grigio, riesling, sauvignon blanc, syrah. So, let’s forget about them.
The term “uncommon” is relative, of course. Does gewürztraminer qualify in your mind? If so, then it would be near the top of my list. I love its luscious texture as well as its heady aromatic characters of boldly fruity lychee, floral rose petal and spicy ginger. A white that rises to its greatest expression in Alsace, it’s sumptuous on its own and an eye-opener when paired with spicy Asian dishes, including Indian curries.
But let’s dig a little deeper. Italy, not France, is the grape-diversity capital of the world, with almost 400 native grapes in commercial production (versus about 200 for France). That may help explain why I most often think of Italian varieties when craving something out of the ordinary. Vermentino ranks up there, to be sure. The white grape conveys hints of citrus and flowers and can combine a delectably oily texture along with a scintillatingly vibrant counterpoint of crushed stones.
That stony, mineral-like quality tends to come through also in wines made from nerello mascalese, a red grape grown on the slopes of Sicily’s Mount Etna, Europe’s most active and tallest volcano. It’s sometimes described as a cross between highly perfumed Burgundian pinot noir and the tannic, tart nebbiolo of Barolo fame. Think of it as two great wines in one.
Have you tried aglianico? It’s not for everyone, given its high acidity and astringent tannins. But this powerful red from southern Italy, which excels on the volcanic hills east of Naples, can develop marvellous complexity in the cellar.
Lately I’ve been particularly smitten with assyrtiko, too. It’s the signature white of Santorini, the Greek island, and can display a rare combination of rounded mellowness along with crisp acidity.
You asked for a maximum of five, and I’m already at my limit while barely scratching the surface. Which is a shame, because I’m hard-pressed not to include albarino, a white grape most closely associated with Spain. (So, let’s include it if you want to subtract the more familiar gewürztraminer.) Crisp and clean, it displays electric tension, the sort of quality the French would call nervosité. Tension in wine is magical, and it stands in contrast to what so many “common” wines seem to be chasing with their heavy – and ultimately flaccid – fruitiness and heavy oak.
Yet some of these might be considered familiar compared with such gems as ciliegiolo, falanghina, greco, mencia, moschofilero, oseleta, ribolla and teroldego. I could cite many more obscure varieties, too, such as callet, grk, kisi, saperavi and timorasso, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any examples without travelling to their native sources in Europe (or the country of Georgia in the case of kisi and saperavi). The world beyond chardonnay and merlot is vast – and worth exploring, one eye-opening glass at a time.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol (HarperCollins) won top prize for best general English cookbook at the 2014 Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.Report Typo/Error