Step Out Of Your Wine Comfort Zone With These Lesser Known Varietals

By Émilie Steckenborn |

Walk into any bar or wine store and you’re guaranteed to find a healthy selection of Cabernet, Chardonnay, or Pinot Noir-based wines. In part due to the influence of France on our most-consumed wines, familiar faces like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are staples on any wine list. Yet with over 10,000 varietals in existence, there are whole other worlds of wine to discover. Let’s break down some semi-obscure varieties that should be next on your to-try list.

Ribolla Galla

Ribolla Galla is a white grape grown in Friuli, North East Italy, which is also making waves in neighboring Slovenia. The grape creates light to medium-bodied wines with a signature high acidity and light floral aromas. 

Previously produced for bulk wine, Ribolla Galla is now back on trend with some producers vinifying it to make “orange” wine due to the grape’s naturally thick skin. As the name indicates, orange wine has a distinctive color which comes from long skin maceration of white grapes. The winemaking practices used are typical for red wine and produce a richer and more complex style of white wine. 

Which wine? Radikon is the top orange wine producer in Friuli, Italy. His family revived and pioneered orange wines in the region in the mid 1990’s. 

Savagnin

Savagnin is a varietal prized for producing a unique Sherry-like wine. Grown in France’s smallest region, Jura, this white grape is booming in popularity. Specifically, the attention is focused on Vin Jaune, an age-worthy, unconventionally-made wine, with a production style that’s reminiscent of the Wild West.

Vin Jaune, which translates directly to “yellow wine,” boasts a distinctive nutty and salt water (aldehyde) character that develops due to a flor-like cover, which forms during ageing. Further complexity is reached in barrel where the wine is aged in oak for a minimum of six years and three months. These iconic Vin Jaune wines can fetch a hefty price.

In addition, some fresh expressions of the grape are being produced in Australia where Savagnin was mistaken for Albarino up until 2009.

WhichWine? We’re talking about an extremely small production varietal here; so, bottles are hard to find. If you can get your hands on a “Veine Bleue de Bacchus Clos Bacchus,” buy it immediately!

Mencia 

Earthy, vegetal and with a berry burst. What more could you want in a wine? 

Mencia is a Spanish red varietal that is typically found in Bierzo DO (Denominación de Origen), in the North West of Spain. The grape is chameleon-like in nature, and can produce light, fresh wines at 12% ABV, or concentrated and spicy versions at 14% ABV.

Which Wine: Raul Perez, Ultreia Saint Jacques, Bierzo. Raul Perez is one of the top Spanish winemakers and the reference point for top wines of Bierzo. Mencia vines aged 80-100 years old make up the Ultreia label. 

Nerello Mascalese

Nerello Mascalese is Italy’s answer to Pinot Noir. Grown on Italy’s Southern Island, Sicily, Nerello Mascalese is a pale-colored wine that packs a punch in flavor. Top vineyards are found on Mount Etna (Etna DOC), an active volcano which imparts an ashy, savory character to the wine and tight, mineral finish. Due to the regions sandy and volcanic soils, some of the vines are still planted on their own rootstocks.

WhichWine? Benanti pushed boundaries when they decided to plant vines on the foot hill of Sicily’s active volcano.  

With lesser-known varietals from across regions rising in popularity, now is the time to expand your horizons further afield. Seek out a wine (or more!) that you haven’t tasted before. While the tried-and-tested favorites will never be off the table, there’s always room for something new.

Emilie has cultivated her palate through gaining her Diploma and Certified Educator from WSET, Certified Sommelier from CMS, HEG Certificate from Cordon Bleu, and is currently a Master of Wine Candidate. As Head of Education Asia & MEIA, she develops programs for front line staff across China, where her team trains thousands of drink enthusiasts across Asia. She currently serves as China Eastern Airlines Official Wine Consultant for First and Business Class.

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