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It’s all too easy to stick to what you know. But when it comes to wine, that can mean missing out on a plethora of less common but undoubtedly interesting grape varieties. Sarah Jane Evans MW suggests some unusual grapes to watch out for
There’s a classic piece of research which shows that if shoppers are presented with more than 15 different types of toothpaste they are inclined to walk away without buying. How much more confusing are the typical wine aisles, with their 700 or more different lines. The easiest thing – apart from simply walking away – is to go for the brand or grape variety that’s familiar. When it comes to grapes, today’s favourites are Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc (for whites); Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon (for reds); and Zinfandel (red grape used to make pink blush wines). Sticking to these may be simplest, but there’s a lot more fun to be had beyond the Safe Seven.
Fortunately, there has never been a better time to discover different wines, even if they can take a little effort to find. Some countries in Europe have managed to hold on to a riot of traditional grapes: Portugal has almost as many grape varieties as France has cheeses. So, too, does Italy, which is revealing an abundance of interesting whites, while Spain has regional reds and whites that are only now starting to make their way across the Pyrenees.
Throughout Europe and beyond there are plenty of lesser-known varieties just waiting to be discovered by a wider audience, so here’s our guide to a few unusual grapes that are well worth a try. We’ve also noted how to pronounce them, as it’s clear to see why easy-to-say grape varieties have more success in the world.
Fans of Sauvignon Blanc should try Spain’s Verdejo (ver-DECK-o) from Rueda – it’s a zesty lime-and-lemon wine with a hint of grapefruity bitterness. Or think English: Bacchus (BACK-us) is deliciously light and floral with a grassy, lemon curd freshness. From Greece, look for Assyrtiko (ass-ER-tiko), which also has a refreshing lemon zestiness. One of the best producers is Hatzidakis, whose vines are trained on the ground to survive the winds on the volcanic island of Santorini. A curiosity is Pedro Ximénez (pedro him-IN-eth or just shorten to ‘PX’) – the grape that, when raisined, is used to make lusciously sweet sherries. It makes a dry, lightly peachy wine in Chile’s Elqui Valley.
Speaking of peaches, fans of the stone-fruit aromas of Viognier should try Spain’s Albariño (alba-REEN-yo), while Austria’s Grüner Veltliner (gr-OON-er velt-LEEN-er) has a stone-fruit charm, plus a characteristic note of white pepper. Bubbling under in Spain is Xarel-lo (cha-REL-o), a hitherto unloved component of Cava. However, several top producers are now producing still white wines from the variety in a style that features richness and texture, rather than just fruit.
Italy is the place to find plenty of refreshing young reds. If you like good Beaujolais or Valpolicella, then try the two reds recommended in the box: Teroldego and Marzemino (te-rol-DAY-go and mart-zee-MEE-no). While, Mencia (men-THEE- a), from Bierzo in northwest Spain, is becoming popular for a similar crunchy charm. From Austria, try Blaufrankisch (blauw-frank-ish) and, in Germany, Dornfelder (dorn-FELD-er), which has lively fruit and light tannins.
Experiment with the bigger, more gutsy wines of Eastern Europe. Saperavi (sah-peh-RAH-vee) from Georgia, the birthplace of wine, has big, dark fruit. Turkey’s Boğazkere (bow-aahz-KEH-reh) – literally meaning ‘throat burner’ – is a bold introduction to a country that’s very new to the UK. From Portugal, try Touriga Nacional (tor-EE-ga nass-E-on-al) – a key ingredient of port. It makes big table wines, with an alluring violet aroma.
The best way to find something out of the ordinary is to ask a specialist wine merchant, or look online. Good places to start are slurp.co.uk and thesampler.co.uk – both have tempting lists of obscure varietals.
2009 Bukettraube, Cederberg Cellars, South Africa (Bancroft Wines, loveyourwine.co.uk)
Grown north of Stellenbosch at 1,000m altitude, this is a rare South African speciality. On the palate it’s off-dry with silky mango and apricot. Particularly great with Asian flavours.
2009 Furmint, Verus, Slovenia (therealwineco.co.uk)
Verus is a dynamic young producer of pure whites. Furmint – one of the ingredients of Hungary’s sweet Tokaji wine – works well here as a dry wine.
2009 As Sortes Godello, Valdeorras, Spain (thewinesociety.com)
Godello, from northwest Spain, is gaining fame, especially when made by star winemaker Rafael Palacios. This is one of Spain’s top whites: full-bodied, mineral and fresh, with citrus undertones.
2010 Taste the Difference Marzemino, Veneto, Italy (Sainsburys)
Light and crunchy, this is the kind of versatile red that Italy does really well.
2009 Finest Teroldego, Trentino, Italy (Tesco)
Also known as Teroldego Rotaliano. This is fruity and fresh, light on the tannins, with a firm dart of acidity to match with grilled red meats. For the price, it’s a great-value juicy red.
This feature was published in the Autumn 2011 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.