Obscure Wine Varietals

Move over Muscadet—there’s a new crop of geeky grapes piquing the interests of oenophiles across the country. In our May/June 2013 issue, we head to California’s Central Coast wine region to hang with a cadre of grape growers forgoing common varietals in favor of obscure plantings. But Central California is far from the only wine region where you’ll find these geeky grapes. From the volcanic hillsides of Sicily to the Franco-Swiss border, vintners are bottling up these funky ferments, and we recently checked in with wine experts around the country to see which ones they’re currently uncorking. Here are their top picks.
Gelber Muskateller

Gelber-what? A member of the Muscat family, this teeny white wine grape is, “hard to grow, yields poorly and ripens unevenly,” says wine importer Terry Theise. But when it’s good, it’s really good. “It’s primordially grapey and fresh,” he says, “is more fun than being tickled by a frisky lover, and as keen as spring water.” And though it smells sweet, don’t be fooled—it’s dry as a bone. Theise says it makes a great hot-weather aperitif thanks to its “wake-the-dead vividness.”
Get a taste: Theise says the best bottlings are from Müller-Catoir in Germany and from Nikolaihof in Austria, “These are ‘serious’ versions, if you will, and the very greatest one in the world is Zind-Humbrecht’s Grand Cru Goldert.” For a more approachable offering, Theise suggests looking for bottles from Berger, Schwarzböck and Ecker in Austria and from Messmer in Germany.

Malvasia Istriana
Love a voluptuous Viognier? Then give Malvasia Istriana a try. “It’s what Viognier wishes it could be,” says Boulder-based Frasca Food and Wine master sommelier, Bobby Stuck. “It has great aromatics, but with more acidity,” he says, “and is great with fish.” Named for the Istria peninsula that spouts into the Adriatic Sea, this highly aromatic, textural white was a European favorite during Venetian times, though its low yields led to its near-extinction when vintners began replacing its vines in favor of faster-growing varietals. But the tides turned just a few decades ago when growers spanning from Italy’s Friuli region to Croatia’s coastline began replanting the grape once again.
Get a taste: “Winemaker Giampaolo Venica [of Venica & Venica in Italy’s Friuli region] does a great job,” Stucky says. And given the estate was established in 1930, they’ve had multiple generations to hone their white wine expertise. Oh, and if you just happen to be in the area, be sure to book a room at the winery’s on-site B&B, just steps from the vines themselves.

Each year, tens of thousands of wine geeks descend on Verona, Italy, to sip and swirl at the annual VinItaly wine festival. And this past April, editor and founder of Vinography.com, Alder Yarrow, came across his geekiest grape of the moment—Timorasso. A somewhat obscure white wine grape native to northern Italy’s Piedmont region, “it produces a pleasant, minerally wine with bright floral notes,” Yarrow writes. And given time in the cellar, “it develops some of the more interesting secondary characteristics that Riesling or Assyrtiko do with time,” he says, “layering on savory notes and gaining more of a saline character.”
Get a taste: Yarrow is a fan of the Timorasso from La Colombera, especially the producer’s “Derthona” Blanco di Colli Tortonese, which offers up delicious tropical flavors and a deep minerality.

Wander between the olive groves and lemon trees along the shear cliffs of the Rivera di Ponente in Italy’s Ligura region and you’ll spy spotted grapevines interplanted throughout. The freckled fruit is Pigato (its name literally means spotted), the geeky grape Portland-based Nostrana wine director Doug Derrick is currently digging. “It makes a snappy, aromatic white wine with great texture that is unique because of it saline quality,” he says.
Get a taste: “The wine from Punta Crena and Bisson are incredibly unique and delicious,” says Derrick. It’s the ideal wine for patios, picnics and everything else the warm weather has to offer.

Ribolla Gialla
A partner in the Philadelphia-based Vetri family of restaurants, Jeff Benjamin admits that while his pick is, “not extremely geeky or obscure, it’s always a favorite.” A white wine grape considered native to Italy’s Fruili region (it’s the region’s oldest grape varietal, dating back to the 1100s), today Ribolla is also cultivated in both Slovenia and Greece and offers wines that are dry and citrus-forward, with definite cellaring potential. “I love its roundness, it’s full-bodiedness and age-worthiness,” says Benjamin, “and I love how it always surprises my carnivore friends.”
Get a taste: With modern winemaking techniques advancing at lightning speed, it’s not everyday you get the chance to taste a wine fermented the old-fashioned way in giant clay amphore, but after pioneering stainless steel fermentation and temperature control technology, Italian vintner Jasko Gravner went back to ancient winemaking basics. And Gravner’s Ribolla Anfora is among Benjamin’s favorites. “Golden yellow with amber highlights, it is dry, big-bodied and very young,” Benjamin says, with the chops to pair with, “very full-bodied, fatty fish, and roasted meats.”

Nerello Mascalese
“I love Nerello Mascalese right now,” says sommelier at Chicago’s Tru restaurant, Jennifer Tietz.  Grown mostly in Sicily (particularly the Etna DOC), this grape is high in acid (making it especially food-friendly) and low in tannin. “It has a captivating fragrance—think red fruit, tobacco, baking spice,” says Tietz, who notes it’s a great option when looking for a red to pair with rich fish like salmon. “As much as I love Pinot Noir, it is nice to have other options,” she says, “and Nerello Mascalese does the job beautifully.”
Get a taste: Ruby red with notes of ripe red cherries and sweet tobacco, Tietz suggests uncorking the I Custodi Aetnus Etna Rosso. Grown in sandy, volcanic soil on the north side of Mount Etna, this bottle balances the Nerello Mascalese with a bit of Nerello Cappuccio and Alicante.

It seems wine geeks everywhere are currently crushing on Négrette, a powerful, yet supple red wine grape typically grown in the Frontonnais region in southwestern France. “It’s an unusual style and drier than your typical red from southwest France,” says sommelier at Los Angeles’ Comme Ca, Anthony Lerner. And recently, California has proven popular growing grounds for the grape, notes Forgottengrapes.com keeper Chris Kern, with close to a dozen Golden State vintners sourcing Négrette from a single vineyard in San Benito County. “Negrette is sort of like Falkor the Luck Dragon in The Never-Ending Story,” says Kern. “To others he can seem big and intimidating and downright scary, but once you’ve spent enough time with him, you enjoy each other and become the best of friends and wonder how you ever existed without him in the first place.”
Get a taste: Lerner says France’s Chateau Bouissel crafts a tasty Négrette blend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Syrah round out the mix), while Kern steers toward older vintages of the San Benito Negrette from Dubost Winery in Paso Robles. “I find 100 percent Négrette needs a minimum of eight years aging before it really starts drinking well,” says Kern who notes that at its best the wine is, “dry, dark, rich, powerful and meaty.”

“I’ve been really getting into Mondeuse of late,” says manager and buyer at Uva Wines in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, Lauren Gitlin of the red wine grape. “It’s simultaneously approachable and distinctive,” she says, “light and easy-going but not one-note by any means, and really authentically its own thing.” Primarily grown in France’s Savoie region just on the border of Switzerland, “arguably the finest Mondeuse in all of Savoie comes from a little village called Arbin,” says Gitlin, “and the maestro of Arbin is a fellow by the name of Louis Magnin, who has tiny, tiny holdings and makes his wine according to organic and some biodynamic principles.”
Get a taste: Domaine Louis Magnin’s entry-level cuvee, “is a perfect example of the varietal’s unique character,” says Gitlin. “It’s lean, light, dry and peppery.” And though it’s easy to enjoy on its own, “I can imagine sitting around outside and drinking it with almonds, olives, rabbit rillettes and grilled sausage,” says Gitlin. “Though it would be equally delightful with vegan fare for those with a no living creatures policy.”

TAGS: {cptags}