By Gary Twining
Until the public “discovers” a particular wine varietal, sales and enthusiasm can lag. Consider what happened with Pinot Noir after the movie Sideways was released: Pinot Noir’s reputation enjoyed a Cinderella-style transformation, and its popularity skyrocketed.
But there are many relatively obscure or under-appreciated wine-grape varieties being planted by vineyard tinkerers and varietal evangelists throughout Ohio and around the world. Because these grape varietals lack fame and notoriety, they often offer great value and deliver fabulous bang for the buck.
Here are a select few of these underdog varietals that I expect to grow in popularity and interest as their plantings increase and more wine drinkers get a chance to taste these hidden gems.
Grüner Veltliner: Originating in Austria, Grüner Veltliner ripens in cool climates, including vineyards around Lake Erie. It makes pleasant, food-friendly whites in many different styles from early-drinking to long-aging. Grüner Veltliner offers unique flavors of citrus, melon and white pepper that vary depending on the climate. Most sommeliers have given up on trying to sell these food-friendly wines in restaurants, since they are not consumer darlings, but I do look for them to become more popular with time and familiarity.
“I like Grüner Veltliner because the fruit is so pure,” says Nick Ferrante, owner and winemaker at Ferrante Winery & Ristorante in Geneva, Ohio. “The soils in my vineyard give me lime, white peach and other citrus notes. Simply delightful wines!”
Pecorino: Named for the sheep that would always find the grapes when they were ripe, Pecorino is an Italian grape grown particularly in Marche and Abruzzo that is early ripening and naturally low-yielding. The grape offers good alcohol and firm acidity for balance. It can be made in a sparkling, still or late-harvest style. The table wines are fresh and fruit-driven, tinged with minerals. They are lovely with food. There are not many available in Ohio yet, but look for that to change as this varietal is discovered.
Blaufränkisch: Also known as Lemberger, this red-wine grape offers dark fruit nuances with forward fruit flavors, moderate tannins and mouth-watering acidity. Originating in the Franconia region of Germany, Blaufränkisch is also being grown in many vineyards in the eastern U.S., the Great Lakes region and in Washington. It makes very pleasant wines in spite of being a late-ripening variety. More German examples are starting to come into the market, so wider distribution of American bottlings won’t be far behind.
“Blaufränkisch is my favorite grape,” says Joe Juniper, partner in Vermilion Valley Vineyards. “We grow five acres currently. In great years, its wines resemble spicy, meaty, smoky Syrah. In the most challenging vintages, the wines resemble Pinot Noir: light on their feet, with cherry flavors. It is also the best blending component in our cellar.”
Tannat: Originally from the Madiran region in southwestern France, the Tannat grape has been successfully used in making red wines in every style from full, dry reds to fortified wines and sweet rosés in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Italy, Peru, Uruguay and the U.S. The dry reds are attracting attention for their rustic, flavorful style, with fruit that ranges from raspberry to dark blackberry, with some winemakers adding a good dollop of oak. As winemakers learn how to tame its firm tannins, the wines will grow in favor.
Cabernet Franc: With softer tannins and more fragrant bouquet than Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc is known to most consumers as a blending grape for red wines. But in cooler climates such as the Great Lakes region (especially Ohio and Michigan) and the Loire Valley’s Chinon and Bourgueil regions, it can make some delicious wines. It offers firm acidity and mellower tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, making it a better pairing with dishes with herbs, tomato sauces and pork, yet it still goes well with red meats and game. Many wines on the right bank of Bordeaux are made with high concentrations of Cabernet Franc. As consumers discover Cabernet Franc-dominated reds, single-varietal bottles and some fine Ohio releases, look for the popularity of Cab Franc to grow.
Saperavi: Originating in the Eastern European country of Georgia, this red-wine grape makes deeply colored wines in cool climates. It is being grown in the Finger Lakes and, most likely, will soon be discovered by Lake Erie winemakers. The grape has firm acidity with good alcohol, a distinctive bouquet and pleasant flavors. With its high tolerance for cold weather and ability to develop rich texture, it is sure to be a potentially important cool-climate grape varietal that could pique interest among those who love richer reds.
Jim Baker, owner of Chateau Niagara Winery in Newfane, New York, is a big fan of Saperavi.
“It is cold-hardy, offers quality at a high yield, and gives substantial flavors of dark, red, peppery fruit similar to a Zinfandel-Syrah blend,” Baker says. “It has the potential as the best hope for a very big and substantial red wine coming from the Eastern United States.”
These are just a handful of hidden-gem and underdog varietals that are worth exploring for all wine enthusiasts, from those who are new to wine all the way to those whose palates have become a bit jaded.