The road less travelled has rewards. Sport-utility vehicle makers tap the allure with fantasy clifftop money shots that say: "freedom four-wheel-drive." Wine enjoyment can be a little like that – exciting when you dare to venture off the steamrolled asphalt. Yet in vino as in vehicles, most people rarely stray from the smooth and familiar. Cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot, pinot noir and, at most, one or two dozen other popular grapes account for the vast majority of North American consumption. The wines are easy to pronounce, easy to find and easy to understand. No big surprises.
It's a shame. There are more than 1,000 grape varieties in commercial circulation. For my part, I would never have discovered humbly delectable falanghina or greco di tufo if I'd heeded the homilies of Burgundy nerds who insist pinot noir is the only grape that matters. (Not that I don't love a good pinot's perfume as much as the new car smell of a pristine BMW X5 crossover.) Think of the "other" 980 grapes as the side streets and dirt roads of potable pleasure. Stray off course and you might just end up, if not on a majestic cliff, at least temporarily lost in a happy place.
Moon Curser Touriga Nacional 2011, British Columbia
Score: 92 Price: $38
There is precious little touriga nacional grown outside Portugal, where the high-quality red grape is a chief constituent of fortified Port as well as a growing number of excellent dry table wines emerging from the Douro region. Like me, it loves sun and heat, and it gets its share in the desert-like environs of the south Okanagan's Osoyoos district. Moon Curser does a splendid job with a tiny plot of young vines, and an expert taster would be unlikely to guess this isn't premium Portuguese juice. Smooth-textured and succulent, it's full-bodied, juicy and brimming with dark chocolate, cracked pepper and earth. The only downside: Just two barrels' worth were produced in the 2011 vintage. If you can score a bottle direct from the winery, try it with grilled lamb. mooncurser.com
Abad Dom Bueno Godello 2010, Spain
Score 89 Price: $15.95
It sounds like the name of a long-forgotten Marx brother. Godello, once nearly extinct, is grown almost exclusively in Spain and Portugal. Today the white variety is finding growing acceptance among consumers seeking a crisp, lean profile that's as far from full-bodied, heavily oaked chardonnay as a Smart car is from an Escalade. This one's lipsmacking, with a nuance of oxidative tang supporting fresh flavours of sweet peach and honeydew melon. Perhaps not a crowd-pleaser, but godello always was more of a loner than Groucho. $17 in Quebec.
CedarCreek Ehrenfelser 2012, British Columbia
Score: 88 Price: $18.95
A German immigrant and Okanagan pioneer, the ehrenfelser grape was instrumental in proving British Columbia could accommodate tender European varieties. In 1977, CedarCreek – then known as Uniacke – was among the first to plant the aromatic white, whose presumed origin was recently debunked thanks to DNA profiling. It's not a cross of riesling and silvaner, as had been thought. They got the riesling part correct, but silvaner is not ehrenfelser's mom (her real identity remains a mystery). A hardy vine, it betrays riesling's fruity perfume, but it's lower in acidity and not as cellar-worthy or complex. CedarCreek's lovely 2012 is off-dry and tastes remarkably like tinned fruit salad, heavy on the peaches and tangerines. A bracing tartness pulls it into balance. Roast pork would be lovely. cedarcreek.bc.ca
Ocone Flora Falanghina 2010
Score: 88 Price: $16.95
A reader wrote recently to inquire if I could recommend a good falanghina. That was a first. I had to assume she'd just returned from Naples, where falanghina ranks among the most treasured local white varieties. After a century of decline, the grape is back and dreaming of big things. Think of light, herbaceous Soave with more meat on its bones and a certain Neapolitan swagger. A hint of ripe banana on the nose replays on the palate, joined by sweet lemon, peach and melon, delivered on a slightly oily texture. Available in Ontario.
Domaine Jean-Charles Girard-Madoux Chignin 2011, France
Score: 87 Price: $14.95
Made from the jacquère grape, an underappreciated specialty of France's eastern Savoie region, this is white wine for those who worship at the altar of rustic charm. It's light, dry and dabbles in crunchy pear and slightly bruised apple flavours, with a tangy edge and pleasantly chalky texture. Classic stuff for cheese fondue. Available in Ontario.
Kourtakis Apelia Agiorgitiko 2010, Greece
Score: 84 Price: $9.95/litre
When a wine comes in at under $10 a litre (at least in Ontario dollars), I hope mainly for this: that it tastes like wine and doesn't compromise my tooth enamel. Occasionally I am impressed. Yes, this is a big industrial brand, as the one-litre format would suggest (there's also a 1.5-litre magnum for $13.95 in Ontario). And, yes, agiorgitiko, Greece's most important red grape, can be great or lousy depending on how and where it's grown (hillsides tend to be flattering). Don't expect teeth-staining concentration from this light-bodied red. Do, on the other hand, expect a certain degree of harmony and balance, as in soft cherry supported by black pepper, herbs and cheerful acidity – quaffer's delight. Serve it slightly chilled with a variety of fare, including simple fish and lamb shish kebabs. $13.29 in New Brunswick, $13.99 in Nova Scotia.