Some of the finest grapes you’ve never heard of
By Shelley Boettcher
You love Pinot Gris and Merlot. Your cellar is filled with Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. You can list off the finest Champagnes like a rap star with a never-ending budget.
But when it comes to lesser-known varieties, you don’t know the difference between Arneis and Albarino. Or Rondinella and Refosk.
You’re not alone. Thousands of grape varieties exist, but only about 1,300 are actually used to make wine.
And of that, only a handful are truly popular: Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance. It’s the world’s most planted wine grape, followed closely by Merlot. Chardonnay — the first white wine on the popularity list — is in fifth place.
Compare that to only two decades ago, when Airen was the world’s most widely grown grape. Grown mostly in Spain, this white grape makes boring, relatively flavourless table wines and is mostly used for spirits.
When was the last time you tasted something made with Airen grapes? Unless you drink a lot of Spanish brandy, you probably haven’t. (That said, it’s worth searching out the brandy; Torres has a good one in our market.)
But there are scores of other, interesting and little-known grapes that deserve more attention than they currently get. A new year is a great time to track down and taste something new, and, along the way, learn a little more about the wide world of wine. Here are a handful of suggestions to start your journey.
Cordero di Montezemolo 2015 Langhe Arneis
This family-owned winery has roots dating back 19 generations, to 1340 in Piedmont, where this grape comes from, too. Interestingly, the name Arneis means “little rascal” in the local dialect, because the grape can be tricky to grow. The resulting white is crisp and classy, with delicate notes of chamomile tea and peaches. Serve chilled, with a lightly seasoned sablefish. About $28.
(Rias Baixas, Spain)
Albarino (spelled Alvarinho in Portuguese) is a white wine grape that offers fresh peach and apricot notes, and will likely appeal to Pinot Grigio fans. Commonly found in Spain’s Rias Baixas region, Albarino is also found in Portugal, California and Australia. Chill this wine and drink it now, with scallops or calamari. About $22.
Rojac 2013 Refosk
(Vipava Valley, Slovenia)
Refosco (Refosk, in Slovenian) is an ancient indigenous red wine grape found in the Veneto region of Italy as well as the bordering Slovenian wine region, where this beauty comes from. Rojac is a very small family-owned winery in Slovenia, headed up by one Uros Rojac, a fun-loving, English-speaking guy. Made with organic grapes, it is dark red in colour, with notes of raspberries, spice and violets. Serve with grilled red meats or slow-roasted lamb. About $28.
Masi 2012 Campofiorin
You may have had this easy-to-find wine from Masi before, but you may not have paid attention to the grapes that are behind it. A blend of Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara, it is a rich red colour, with intense berry flavours, spicy aromas and a mighty long finish. You’ll find all three of these grapes in Valpolicella and Amarone wines, too. Pair with a meaty lasagna made with tomato sauce, grilled meats or a chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano. About $19.
Giusti 2014 Augusto
Calgarian Joe Giusti — creator of Giusti Construction — splits his time between Canada and Italy, the country of his birth, where he is rapidly turning his winery into one of Italy’s top producers. Recantina is the grape here, an indigenous Italian varietal that has almost died out except for a few rare plantings such as the ones used to make this wine. I can’t get enough of these dark berry flavours, the velvety tannins and that long, long finish. A beautiful pairing for slow-roasted lamb or venison. About $45
Dacapo 2015 ‘Majoli’ Ruche di Castagnole Monferrato
Dacapo is a relatively new winery in Italy; it was established in 1997 around an existing winery, to make wines focused on the local terroir and regional grapes. Ruche often has aromas of roses — the long-stemmed dark red ones that are so popular at Valentine’s Day — and this fragrant example is no exception. Majoli refers to the little hilly vineyard where these grapes are grown. Serve with a charcuterie platter and some Italian cheeses. About $30.
If you’ve never tried Retsina before, you’re in for a surprise. It’s made by adding pine resin from the Aleppo pine to white wine in Greece. References to the wine date back 2,000 years, when the resin was likely added to prevent oxidization and to stabilize the wine for shipping and aging.
This particular example is outstanding, with complex pine aromas and flavours. And the grapes used here? Roditis and Savatiano. About $13 (for a 500-mL bottle.)
Romariz 2013 Douro
(Douro Valley, Portugal)
You may have had Port before, but you may never have had a table wine made from Port grapes. Now is your opportunity, with this rustic red made from Touriga Nacional and a handful of other indigenous Portuguese grapes. It has pleasant dark fruity notes and good tannic structure. Open it for half an hour or so before serving, and pair with something salty — a sea salt dusted steak or even just a bag of potato chips on a casual Friday night.
Romariz is a Port wine producer with roots dating back to 1850 but the team also makes a handful of table wines such as this one. About $16 a bottle.