Looking at a wine list is a daunting undertaking on its own. It’s hard enough for most consumers to understand that a Domaine Louis Jadot Beaune is really just a Pinot Noir, or that a Chateau Famaey Cahors is actually nothing more than a simple Malbec. So with many of today’s restaurants and wine shops starting to feature more obscure varietals that are largely unknown outside their country of origin, American wine drinkers have an opportunity to learn a whole new oenophilic language beyond Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
“I think the recent availability of lesser-known but distinctive varieties from around the world is the least boring thing happening in the American wine market,” says Bill Fitch, head sommelier at Brooklyn’s Vinegar Hill House. “In many cases these wines are cheaper and pair exceptionally well with many dishes.”
Below are a selection of some of the “oddball grapes” that are making their way on to store shelves and wine lists across the country:
If you like: Pinot Grigio
You’ll like: Rkatsiteli
Originally grown in the republic of Georgia, this ancient white grape is widely grown throughout Eastern Europe. But more recently it has started to find a home in parts of the United States, most notably, perhaps, by Dr. Frank Wines in New York’s Finger Lakes region. Due to it’s potential to achieve high levels of sugar and acid, Rkatsiteli (pronounced er-kat-si-TEL-ly) grapes can produce several different styles of wine — from dry to sweet even fortified and brandy.
Mariya Kovacheva, head sommelièr at Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud in Palm Beach, Florida, hails from Bulgaria, where Rkatsitelis are widely grown. She says she often recommends a pairing with salads and light seafood dishes because of the grape’s mineral notes and refreshing acidity. “If I had to compare it with other varietals I’d say, perhaps, Vermentino and Pinot Grigio are closest,” she says, noting the varietals’ many comparable characteristics, such as white peaches, lady apples and delicate meadow flowers.
If you like: Chenin Blanc
You’ll like: Aidani
This white grape hails from the Greek Islands, particularly Santorini, where it known mostly as blending grape that helps soften another widely grown Greek varietal, Assyrtico. Generally a low-acid wine with rich floral aromas similar to Muscat and Chenin Blanc, this wine is known for adding a delicate, floral note when blended.
“It seems capable of long aging and reminds me of Chenin, with citrus and floral fragrances, but plenty of minerality, even a touch of Chenin-y lanolin.” says Fitch.
If you like: Nebbiolo
You’ll like: Xynomavro
This wine literally translates literally to “acid” and “black” and is considered to be the finest red wine in its native Greece. Due to its characteristically high tannin and acidity, Xynomavro (pronounced: ksee-NO-ma-vroh) is structurally one of the biggest red wines in the Mediterranean, and perhaps in all of Europe.
“This is one of my favorite Greek red grapes,” said Kovacheva. “Its structure reminds me of Nebbiolo as it reveals notes of tar, dried rose petals, dried herbs, ripe red and blackcurrants, and dark raspberries.”
She recommends pairing the wine with stuffed tomatoes or peppers with rice and ground beef.
If you like: Gruner Veltliner
You’ll like: Rotgipfler
As one of the 35 grape varieties permitted in quality wines in Austria, Rotgipfler (pronounced ROHT-gip-flar) is a natural crossing of two other native varietals, Traminer and Roter Veltliner. This white grape has notes of pear, peach, almond and spice with a good acidity, making it a versatile grape. While Rotgipfler can make a textured dry, spicy white wine, it really shines as a late-harvest, off-dry or sweet wine.
If you like: Viognier
You’ll like: Malagousia
Grown primarily in Central Greece and Greek Macedonia, this aromatic white variety displays notes of citrus and stone fruit with a rich mouthfeel, much like the more common Viognier, according to Aaron Von Rock, wine director for the Patina Group East Coast. Kovacheva calls Malagousia (ma-la-gooz-YAH) her “ultimate spring wine,” and Fitch notes the surprising lime, ginger, blood orange and bitter almond notes they can display.
“The Malagousia from Zafeirakis in Thessaly is my favorite so far,” he says. “More subtle in its primary aromas, more balanced in its minerality. It’s a great food wine but also delicious alone.”
If you like: Pinot Noir
You’ll like: Nerello Mascalese
With all the rage currently surrounding grapes grown on the volcanic slopes of Sicily’s Mount Etna, it’s no wonder Nerello Mascalese (neh-REHL-loh mahs-kah-LEH-zeh) is popping up on wine lists in cities across the U.S. The black grape produces fresh red wines with fruity and herbaceous characters combined with good minerality and an earthiness reminiscent of a great red Burgundy.
Von Rock says his restaurants have enjoyed have championed the Mount Etna region by offering several Nerello Mascaleses for guests.
“The aromatic range is so well perfumed with red flowers and red berries, it has immediate charm for lovers of Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo,” he says. “Like those two varietals, Nerello showcases a wide range of flavours dependent on terroir, giving the resulting wine great transparency too.” The styles, Von Rock adds, can range from ethereal and light, to earthy and tannic: “Or what the Sicilians call selvatico, which translates to ‘wild and untamed’,” he says.
If you like: Syrah
You’ll like: Mondeuse Noire
This black grape variety finds its home in eastern France, specifically the Savoie region near the Swiss border. Mondeuse Noire (pronounced: mon-DOOZ no-WAH) is known for its powerful aromas of sour cherry, plum, and black pepper with good acidity and well-integrated tannins and a rich, deep-purple color. It is a great match for well-seasoned meats like flank steak or pungent cheeses.
If you like: Grenache (Garnacha)
You’ll like: Monica
This black varietal is found exclusively on the island of Sardinia, off the west coast of Italy. Monicas are typically simple table wines designed for everyday drinking as they are light to medium bodied with soft tannins and flavors of strawberry, plum, and herbs with sometimes a earthy or smoky note.
“It is the Sardinian answer for pairing red wines with fish, with its lovely lifting acidity,” says Von Rock, who adds that Monicas are still not widely circulated in the U.S. “We love Monica whenever we find it. It remains a rare surprise.”
If you like: Zinfandel
You’ll like: Plavec Mali
Well-known in its homeland of Croatia, Plavec Mali (PLAH-vahtz MAH-lee) produces robust reds with black cherry flavors and notes of smoke, pepper and baking spices. This black grape produces wines that are high in alcohol and tannin with great aging potential, similar to a rich California Zinfandel. The variety’s name comes from the appearance of the grapes: mali means small, while plavac – a prefix given to several Croatian varieties – refers to the blue color of the berries.
If you like: Chardonnay
You’ll like: Godello
This white grape, which hails from the northwest of Spain, can take on various qualities based on its vinification process, much like Chardonnay. With steel-tank vinification Godello (pronounced: goh-DAY-oh) can have a crisp freshness with a good amount of minerality and citrus notes. However, with a bit of oak ageing, the wine becomes richer and fuller with an almost creamy quality.
“Godello is such an overlooked grape that produces some delicious wines,” says Kovacheva. “It’s comparable to Chardonnay due to it structure and luscious texture. At the same time it relates to Albarino with its pronounced minerality/salinity and citrus notes.”