In the vast and intriguing world of wine, names like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon often overshadow the rich tapestry of lesser-known varietals. With their iconic tastes and widespread availability, these celebrated wines have undeniably carved out a massive space in the global wine scene. However, this is a small sip of what the wine world offers.
As wine enthusiasts, there’s an unmatched thrill in venturing off the well-trodden path, exploring unique flavours and introducing our palates to novel experiences. Beyond the familiar terrains of Chardonnay and Cabernet lie wine treasures begging to be uncorked.
So, if you’re curious and eager to broaden your wine horizons, join us on this exciting journey as we delve into the delightful realm of unusual wine varietals, you absolutely must try. Cheers to discovery!
What are Wine Varietals?
When discussing wines, we often hear names like Merlot, Shiraz, or Pinot Noir. These names, often confused with wine brands, are wine varietals. Essentially, a wine varietal refers to the grape variety used to produce the wine. For instance, a Chardonnay bottle is made predominantly from the Chardonnay grape.
The choice of grape plays a pivotal role in determining the wine’s flavour, aroma, and character. Each grape variety, nurtured in specific climates and soils, possesses its unique profile. As a result, wines produced from different varietals can offer a multitude of taste experiences, even if they originate from the same region.
Diversifying your wine palette is akin to a gastronome sampling diverse cuisines from around the world. Just as you wouldn’t limit your culinary adventures to just one type of cuisine, limiting yourself to a handful of popular wine varietals would mean missing out on the multifaceted universe of flavours, aromas, and stories that wines from around the world bring to the table.
Whites Beyond Chardonnay
Origin and Primary Regions: Often associated with the coastal regions of Spain and Portugal, Albariño finds its most famous expressions in Spain’s Rías Baixas. The maritime climate of this region, with its cool breezes and ample sunshine, creates the perfect environment for this grape to flourish.
Tasting Notes and Pairings: Albariño wines are known for their refreshing acidity, making them perfect for warm days. They often have a profile reminiscent of ripe citrus fruits, with nuances of peaches or apricots and sometimes even a subtle saline or mineral note reminiscent of the sea. Pairing Albariño with seafood, especially dishes like grilled octopus or steamed mussels, is a match made in heaven.
Origin and Primary Regions: Picpoul, sometimes known as “Piquepoul,” has its roots in the Languedoc region of southern France, specifically in the Picpoul de Pinet appellation.
Tasting Notes and Pairings: Picpoul wines are invigorating, with high acidity and crisp notes. They typically carry flavours of green apple, citrus, and sometimes hints of white flowers. Given its zesty nature, it pairs wonderfully with seafood, notably oysters and other shellfish, and even with light salads or goat cheese.
Origin and Primary Regions: Austria takes pride in Grüner Veltliner, its flagship white grape. This varietal covers a significant part of the country’s vineyards, especially in regions like Wachau, Kamptal, and Kremstal.
Tasting Notes and Pairings: Grüner Veltliner wines are versatile, ranging from light and easy-drinking to rich and full-bodied. Common tasting notes include green apple, white pepper, and sometimes hints of herbal qualities. Its characteristic white pepper note is especially distinctive. When it comes to food pairings, think of dishes like wiener schnitzel, spicy Asian cuisine, or even a simple green salad. The wine’s peppery kick complements a variety of flavours.
Origin and Primary Regions: With origins tracing back to the Alto Adige region of Italy and the Alsace region of France, Gewürztraminer is a grape with a distinct personality. Today, it’s cultivated in various parts of the world, including the USA, Australia, and New Zealand, but Alsace remains its most iconic region.
Tasting Notes and Pairings: The very name “Gewürz” means “spice” in German, and rightfully so. This wine varietal is aromatic, with lychee, rose, and sometimes ginger or cinnamon notes. It can range from dry to sweet on the palate, making it incredibly versatile. Pairing this varietal can be a fun experiment. It works wonders with spicy dishes, like Thai or Indian cuisines, and even with strong cheeses or pâtés.
Reds Beyond Cabernet
Origin and Primary Regions: Tannat originated in the Madiran region of Southwest France. Over time, it’s a grape that found a second home in Uruguay, where it now flourishes and is considered the country’s national grape.
Tasting Notes and Pairings: As the name might suggest, Tannat wines are notably tannic. They offer rich, full-bodied experiences with flavours of dark fruits like blackberries and cherries, often complemented by hints of chocolate or coffee. Given its robust nature, Tannat pairs well with hearty dishes. Think grilled meats, rich stews, and strong cheeses.
Origin and Primary Regions: Nebbiolo is the pride of the Piedmont region in Northwestern Italy, especially known for producing the revered Barolo and Barbaresco wines.
Tasting Notes and Pairings: Nebbiolo wines are characterised by their firm tannins and high acidity, creating a powerful taste profile. They often exhibit flavours of cherries, roses, and sometimes tar. These wines pair best with equally rich foods, such as truffle-based dishes, braised meats, and aged cheeses.
Origin and Primary Regions: This grape has its roots in the Bordeaux region of France, where it is often used as a blending grape to add structure and colour to Bordeaux blends.
Tasting Notes and Pairings: Petit Verdot wines are intense, with flavours of dark fruits, violets, and sometimes even leather. Given its strong profile, it pairs beautifully with grilled meats, especially lamb, and dishes with a smoky undertone.
Origin and Primary Regions: Originally from Bordeaux, Carménère found its true calling in the vineyards of Chile, where it’s now a flagship varietal.
Tasting Notes and Pairings: Carménère wines are medium-bodied and often have flavours of red fruits, spices, and sometimes a distinctive green bell pepper note. They pair well with various foods, from grilled vegetables to lighter meats and pasta dishes.
Sparkling and Sweet Varietals to Explore
Lambrusco (Sparkling Red)
Origin and Primary Regions: Lambrusco hails from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. It’s one of the few red grapes that are used to produce sparkling wines.
Tasting Notes and Pairings: Lambrusco wines are bubbly, fruity, and can range from dry to sweet. They exhibit flavours of berries, cherries, and sometimes hints of violet. The enthusiasm and fruitiness of Lambrusco make it a perfect pairing for a variety of foods, from charcuterie boards to pizza and even some desserts.
Torrontés (Sweet White)
Origin and Primary Regions: Torrontés is synonymous with Argentina, especially regions like Salta, La Rioja, and Mendoza.
Tasting Notes and Pairings: Torrontés wines are aromatic, boasting notes of citrus, peach, and white flowers. While often dry, their aromatic nature gives them a perceived sweetness. These wines are a match made in heaven for spicy Asian dishes, particularly Thai and Indian cuisine, as they beautifully balance and complement the heat.
Why Explore Unusual Varietals?
Diversity is the spice of life. This adage holds particularly true in the realm of wines. While the allure of the well-known is comforting, the thrill of discovery lies in venturing beyond the known boundaries.
Broadening the Palate and Wine Experiences: Like an artist exploring different mediums and techniques, wine enthusiasts should diversify their experiences. Tasting unusual varietals introduces our palate to a spectrum of flavours and aromas we might never have encountered before. It challenges our taste buds, making the wine journey ever-evolving and exciting.
Supporting Smaller Vineyards and Unique Wine-Producing Regions: Many lesser-known varietals come from smaller vineyards, often run by families nurturing their vines for generations. We indirectly support these artisans and their rich traditions by exploring these wines. It also brings attention and economic support to unique wine-producing regions that the more prominent ones may otherwise overshadow.
Tips for Exploring New Wine Varietals
Start with Wine Tastings or Flights: One of the best ways to introduce yourself to new wines is by attending tastings. Many wine bars and restaurants offer flights—small servings of several wines—which allow you to compare and contrast different varietals without committing to a full bottle.
Join a Wine Club Focused on Lesser-Known Varietals: Numerous wine clubs today cater to enthusiasts looking to expand their horizons. You can receive a curated selection of unique wines at your doorstep by joining one.
Travel to Lesser-Known Wine Regions: There’s nothing like experiencing wine right at its source. Consider planning your next holiday to an off-the-beaten-path wine region. Not only will you get to taste fantastic wines, but you’ll also immerse yourself in the local culture and traditions.
Ask Sommeliers or Local Wine Shops for Recommendations: Sommeliers undergo extensive training and have a vast knowledge of wines, including the hidden gems. Similarly, local wine shop owners often have a pulse on the up-and-coming varietals and can guide you based on your preferences.
Every bottle of wine holds a story—a tale of the land, the climate, the people who nurtured it, and the traditions that shaped it. As you uncork a bottle of an unfamiliar varietal, you’re not just tasting wine but sipping on history, culture, and passion. The thrill of discovering a new favourite, sharing it with loved ones, and the ensuing stories are all integral to the wine-drinking experience. We encourage every wine enthusiast to step outside their comfort zone, challenge their palate, and wholeheartedly embrace the diverse, rich world of wines. After all, in diversity, there’s beauty and strength. Cheers to the road less travelled in the world of wines!