Other Grapes than Cab, Chard, etc.
There are other grapes that make delicious wines worth exploring. We all have a habit of sticking with what we like, but it limits us from actually knowing what we like. The wines below are all delicious and worth a try.
This white wine grape variety originally from the central Loire Valley in France once was highly important in California. Among the top wines of the 1980s were Chenin Blancs from Charles Krug and the oak-aged Chalone. Chenin Blanc is melon-scented and usually makes a slightly off-dry white wine. It is a terrific light white with better flavor profile than many (such as warm-climate Pinot Gris), but it has few adherents left in California. Today the best is made by Dry Creek Vineyards based on fruit from sandy vineyards in Clarksburg.
This grape, also called Pinot Grigio in Italy, is really a degenerate offshoot of Pinot Noir (which itself is a fast-mutating, adaptive grape). It appears to grow best in cooler climates. In warmer climates it seems not to deliver much flavor. Cooler climate versions (such as those from the northern Italian region of Alto Adige) can be brilliant wines. The best in the United States are in cold area such as Oregon, Washington, and California’s central coast.
This grape was once more important in France than it is today. The aromatics of this grape, as a wine, can be faintly “earthy” and still complex. A cousin of Pinot Noir, it can make attractive dry white wines without the floral notes of Chardonnay. The wines can be nicely long-lived, and rarely require as much barrel aging. The grape is still made by a handful of American wineries, notably in Oregon, though it is hard to sell since few people understand it.
This completely underrated grape is a vigorous grower that is unrelated genetically to Sauvignon Blanc, but which has a few similarities in aroma and aftertaste. The fig, “cigar butt,” and lanolin aromas one encounters at the lower sugars give the bone-dry wine a distinctive quality even though it may only have 10.5% or 11% alcohol. However, such wines have great aging potential (as long as they have enough acidity). Semillons from Australia (notably the warm Hunter Valley), when made from grapes harvested early, can be superb with 10 or 20 years of age. The grape also is the heart of the rich and succulent Sauternes, the classic sweet wine of Bordeaux, since it can be affected by Botrytis Cinerea, the “noble mold.”
(Alexandria, Frontignan, Black, Giallo, Otonel, Orange, etc.): Muscat, almost regardless of which version you get, is an overwhelmingly floral/spicy grape from a huge and varied family. All Muscat grapes usually make wines that are sweet, or very sweet, though a few of the world’s top producers still make it as a dry wine (such as in Alsace, Germany, and Australia). Muscat is one of the most ancient of grape families and its most famous use probably is in Italy, where it makes the famed Moscato d’Asti and many other lightly sparkling, sweet Muscats. Some rare versions of sweet, fortified Muscats from Rutherglen in Australia are distinctive and in-demand in Australia, but rarely sold outside that country.
This is a classic French (Bordeaux and the Loire) red grape that can have a fine element of herbs in the wines. With its red cherry fruit, CabFranc is an engaging addition to blends, as it is in Bordeaux. The grape also makes a non-oak-aged red in the Loire Valley (i.e., Chinon), and because of its lovely fruit is also the base for many fine dry rosés. When properly grown, this grape can stand on its own and benefits from very careful harvesting, neither too early nor too late.
Often misunderstood, this very dark red wine can also be a charmer with the right foods. Petite Sirah makes a coarse red wine that is best aged. Few examples of wines made to drink when young have been successful. However, it is not easy to tame the tannins, which can be aggressive. Still, even then the wine’s rustic nature allows it to pair nicely with hearty foods. It is also a great blending grape, adding color and weight.
One of the world’s most prolific grapes, Grenache is a superb addition to many blended reds, and can make a startlingly fine wine on its own. It is the dominant grape of the southern Rhône Valley. Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhône is a stellar red wine that is normally a blend of Grenache with as many as 12 other grapes. As a plant, Grenache is wildly aggressive–so prolific that growers are tempted to go for volume rather than smaller quantities, where the quality lies. At higher production (10 tons/acre) it can make a wine without much color and can be lacking in flavor. Grenache once was the dominant grape in great rosé wines, which were sweet, and as a result it left a bad taste in the minds of some. But its basic aromatics are so startling (red cherries, cranberries, pomegranate, pepper) that when it is grown in cooler climates it can make a superb and dramatic red. Australia has a long track record with old-vine Grenache as a top-flight wine.
The world of wine is vast. Explore and experiment with these and many other grapes to enhance your journey!