Bored with Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc? Discover some new grapes with
By: Kathleen Willcox.
The heirloom tomato effect is at work in the wine world. Shortly after activist chefs and farmers popularized the notion that post-industrial agriculture had ravaged the land with chemicals, leaving depleted soil capable only of producing bland vegetables and fruits that tasted more like the factory floor they were packed in than the food they nominally were, a certain type of wine consumer began clamoring for heirloom-style wines.
But unlike carrots and tomatoes, which are either tasty or tasteless depending on how they're grown, the world of wine dragged centuries of culture, tradition and tinkering in its wake and the process of changing the market has been markedly slower.
Still, according to Monty Waldin (the author of Biodynamic Wine and a tireless tracker of organic wine trends), only 1 percent of the world's wine vineyards were certified organic or biodynamic in 1999. By 2018, almost 5 percent were. And while consumers were slightly slower to connect the dots and demand chem-free wine to pair with their humanely raised free-range pig snout on mass, the production of organic wine is expected to rise 10.05 percent by 2021 according to the Global Organic Wine Market Report. Authenticity, freshness and obscurity
In addition to cleanly produced wine, is the thirst for authenticity and the purest expression of the vineyard, with consumers craving unfamiliar – and therefore more "authentic" – grape varietals that have not been heavily tampered with in the production process.
"Our consumers are buying the same amount of funky grapes as noble grapes," says Niclas Jansson, a partner at the Washington DC-based natural wine importer, Through the Grapevine. "The funky wines that seem to stick do tend to have a similar profile: low ABV, very little oak, fresh tasting. If you're drinking an unknown grape variety, you want to allow the fruit itself to shine."
The biggest driver of the trend, he says, is Millennials, who are seeking not only something pleasing to their palate, but wines that will horrify their parents with their unpronounceability and esoteric country of origin.
"Millennials drink more wine than any other age bracket, and half of them post about it on Facebook, which has just magnified this movement," Jansson says. "And they want to differentiate themselves from their parents, who tend to go for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon."
Stephanie Cuadra founded her Utah-based import company Terrestoria in 2017 on the strength of the rebel wine movement.
"As an advocate of rare and indigenous grape varieties, I see their growing popularity not as a trend, but as an inevitable progression as consumers become more aware of the fascinating spectrum of wine grapes in the world," she says. "Uniqueness is something more and more consumers are after." She notes that consumers are embracing not just rare and indigenous varieties specific to particular regions, but also historic varietals that came close to extinction in recent history (such as her favorite age-worthy Italian white, Timorasso or Pallagrello Bianco.)
While adjectives like "weird" and "oddball" – when applied to grapes at least – used to be considered aspersions in the world of wine, these days they're a feather in a winemaker's cap.
Jansson says their Blauer Portugieser is as popular as their Riesling now, something almost unthinkable five years ago, and Cuadra notes that in the past year, she's stopped "apologizing" for her portfolio of eccentricities, and advertises their peculiarities with pride.
Opinions coming from wine-sellers with skin in the game can only go so far. Yet anecdotal and empirical evidence back Jansson and Cuadra up. While a scan of a wine list a decade ago may have fooled you, there are 10,000 known grapevine varietals out there. And while 13 (0.13 percent) cover more than 33 percent of the world's vine-growing land, and 33 varieties (0.33 percent) cover 50 percent according to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine, more and more of these beauty school drop outs are appearing in bottles in the most enviable cellars in the world, much to the horror of certain well-known "godforsaken grape" haters (cough, Robert Parker, cough).
Keith Wallace, the founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia, says that in 2014, they ran two "exotic wines" classes primarily for sommeliers. In 2018, they ran it again. Citing data from the "well-known national retailer" he consults for and sales data from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, Wallace says in the past year sales of Pinotage from South Africa have increased 33 percent, sales of South America's Bonarda have gone up 16 percent and sales of Italy's Frappato, Nerello Mascalese, Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso and Teroldego have increased 19 percent, 22 percent, 41 percent and 23 percent respectively.
Still, Parker and your grandpa can rest easy, knowing that Cabernet Sauvignon is grown more than any other variety of wine grape, taking up 840,000 acres (340,000 hectares) of the world total's vineyard production of 16 million acres (6.5 million hectares). Next up is Merlot, which gobbles up 657,300 acres (266,000 hectares). Things start to get a slightly less canonical after that with Tempranillo taking up 570,800 acres (231,000 hectares), and Airén nabbing 538,700 acres (218,000 hectares) in Spain.
Some countries bristle with diversity. Take Italy, where the most-planted variety is Sangiovese which only takes up 8 percent of the country's vine-space. Or Georgia, where about 525 indigenous grape varietals flourish.
Compare that to New Zealand, where Sauvignon Blanc comprises 60 percent of its wine grape production, and Spain where Tempranillo and Airén together take up 45 percent of the country's grape-space.
Odd grapes, unusual places
Lauren Daddona, wine director at Del Frisco's Double Edge Steakhouse in Boston (with 15,000 bottles in inventory), says she started noticing the interest in non-noble varietals about five years ago, adding that she also believes it's driven, primarily by Millennials on a "quest for greater authenticity and the appreciation of a backstory."
So if all of these obscure weirdos are crowding out the bold-faced celebs – even on classic American steakhouse wine lists like Del Frisco's – from which outer borough do the best ones hail?
Our experts argue Italy, Georgia and perhaps counter-intuitively, California. (Though Greece, Austria, Portugal, Spain, New York's Finger Lakes also appear high on their lists).
Italy broke the world into weirdness; exports of wine grew by 7 percent in 2017, with the US consuming more Italian wine than anyone else, followed by German and the UK, according to the farming association Coldiretti. (Though the Russian and Chinese markets are blowing up, increasing by 47 percent and 25 percent in 2017, respectively).
The country has more land devoted to grape growing in the world, behind France and Spain, and grows several hundred indigenous varieties. Abruzzo is the region most frequently cited as the Disneyland of Italian obscurity, with varietals like Montelpuliciano, Trebbiano, Pecorino, Passerina and Cococciola becoming increasingly sought-after. But La Marché's Verdicchio, which has always had a fan-base, is also gaining ground, especially when winemakers focus on "clean" growing practices.
Emiliano Bernardi of the grapegrowing cooperative Colonnara Viticultori says that the growers he works with have begun to focus on the organic production of grapes, so that the dry, mineralic lemon flavors Verdicchio fanatics swoon over can shine through. In the past year, the value of the region's haul has grown 9 percent (or almost three times the national average of 3.4 percent). While the market for Verdicchio-wine is growing everywhere, Bernardi says the real boom is happening in Asia, especially in Japan and China.
The land of milk and honey has more than (but not by much) 100 varietals of wine grapes blossoming. Still, the leading seven (by far) are deeply familiar to all: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Zinfandel. Still, plenty of pockets of renegade grapes spring up. Take Dirty and Rowdy, which was founded by Hardy Wallace and Matt Richardson in 2010, with the idea of focusing on Mourvédre, a grape rarely associated with California.
"People thought we were completely insane," Wallace dishes with glee. "But it's incredibly appropriate for California's variable climate. It has thick skin and it does well under stress. It can thrive at 3500 feet elevation, or 80 feet."
In 2010, they made two barrels but word quickly spread about their unique project and they gained notoriety and, with it, thirsty fans. Now they have contracts with eight vineyards all over the state; each bottling is created to allow the unique soils and terroir in which the grapes were grown to shine. And while he admits that they have plenty of happy Millennial customers in Oakland and Brooklyn, he says the average age of their customer is 47, and their strongest following is abroad in Singapore, Canada, England and Mexico. In the past eight years, sales have grown 10-fold (they hover around 4500 cases).
Wines from Georgia are probably inspiring the most excitement for a variety of reasons. First there's the history, which has a mesmerizing frisson of danger: in the last century, the country's 8000 year long wine culture was threatened due to the success of two high-yielding grapes, Rkatsiteli and Saperavi. Their success meant that many of the estimated 1500 varieties under vine a century ago were removed, explains LA sommelier and Georgian wine nut (previously of Spago and Mazzo Restaurant Group, now a consultant at Whole Cluster Beverage and Hospitality and GM of République) Taylor Parsons.
Noel Brockett, a director at the Maryland-based importer Georgian Wine House, also blames the free market-stymieing effects of communism on the extermination of many indigenous varieties. Luckily in the 21st Century varietal diversity was again championed and supporters of the movement, like the team at the Georgian Wine House, began spreading the gospel of Georgian wine.
"We went from maybe four wines in our portfolio in 2004 when we got started to 60-65 now," Brockett says. "In the past five years, but especially the last two, Georgian wine is being recognized by some of the most highly regarded sommeliers in the country."
Sales, according to the National Wine Agency of Georgia, reached a record-breaking 76.7 million bottles, up 54 percent year-over-year in 2017. Parsons says it's just a matter of getting people to try the wines. Because of Georgia's untampered and hands-off approach to production, the wines "can be transcendent. It's a way of discovering something that is both new to you, but ancient and rooted in a culture." It is not, more to the point, he says, "just some wine made out of thin air because the 20-year-old winemaker thought it would be cool to mix Syrah and White Zinfandel and then conferment in a sheep's bladder."
In other words, these wines are like the proto manic pixie dream girl. They aren't weird, beautiful and charming because they're trying to be weird, beautiful and charming, OK?
They just are. It's what wine culture always was – the fastest way to travel to a different land, mindset and culture, all without leaving your seat – redefined for the 21st Century.
A quick guide to some lesser-known grapes
We tapped our experts for tips on obscure grapes. Here's what they recommended:
Sicily's Carricante is likened to cool-climate Chardonnays.
Also grown in Sicily, Nerello Mascalese, with its earthy, herbaceous, yet muscular notes seems downright Burgundian.
Greece's Aidani is reminiscent of a floral, delicate Chenin Blanc.
Xynomavro, also native to Greece, is meaty and lively, a la Nebbiolo.
Spain's Mencia seems like a cross between Pinot Noir and Syrah.
Austrian red varietal Blaufränkisch has characteristics of both Pinot Noir and Syrah.
White varietal Furmint, found in Hungary, Slovenia, Austria and Croatia, has the full, distinctively pungent aromas of a Sauvignon Blanc and the bracing acidity of a Riesling.
Georgia's white varietal Rkatsiteli has the food friendliness of a Pinot Grigio. (It's also popping up in wines in the Finger Lakes, having been adopted and planted by Dr. Frank Wines).
Georgia's Mtsvane is like a Sauvignon Blanc without the grassy bits.
Georgia's increasingly popular Kisi often calls to mind something between Chenin Blanc and Viognier on steroids.
Georgia's Tavkveri is a workhorse, and is going into sparklers and rosé. The best examples are often vinified as light red wines (a la Beaujolais), and they can be truly lovely: tangy, red-fruited, bright and zesty.
Credit: Kathleen Willcox, Wine-Searcher.com