Wine Round-Up: Unusual Grape Varieties

Too late on Thursday (May 7), I noticed a reminder in my Inbox to celebrate the Wine Century Club’s 4th Birthday by opening up a bottle of something unusual. The Wine Century Club, you see, is a low-key, online/offline group of people who each certify that they have tasted at least 100 different wine grape varietals. There are currently 590 members, and I’m one of them. (In fact, appropriately, I was among the first hundred.) A hundred different wine grapes sounds like a lot, but if you’re as adventurous in your wine drinking as I am, it’s relatively easy to reach that tally – especially if you allow for blends, as the Wine Century Club does. For example, a bottle of the well-priced Mont Redon red will net you (all) 13 varietals (that are allowed in a bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape), and the Sokol-Blasser Evolution white we recently downed at the Peekamoose will gather another 9. See: you’re already a fifth of the way there!

Anyway, I didn’t get to open anything up on Thursday night. What I did do, instead, was hunt around my wine notes for some of the less common varietals that have passed my lips over recent weeks; this seems as healthy a contribution to wine geek culture as drinking yet more. There are five distinct grapes reviewed below, with reference to another nine more; throw that in with the two blends I mention in the opening paragraph and you can see how easy it is to work your way up to the wine century. You just have to make note of what you’re drinking.


Grüner Veltliner, which covers fully a third of Austria’s vineyards, has been getting more and more popular these last few years: you may have seen the 1 liter bottle by Hofer wit a beer cap top that’s been quite the $11 rage for a while now. The Forstreiter Kmeser is down at that low end of the scale, and it’s very approachable, with lots of citrus acidity, a mineral backbone and a stony, fleshy palate: $12 at Le Du’s in Manhattan. Nikolhaiof is the benchmark producer of the grape, making this Grüner from Austria’s highly rated Wachau section, though even this $25 wine (per Chambers Street Wine) comes in a screw top. Yellow-gold, it’s got a pronounced steeliness on the nose, very rounded apple-pear on the palate, some citrus, a little honey, a bright acidity, very firm minerality and a pronounced edge. Oz Clarke talks about celery and lentils when he writes about Grüner in his encylopaedia of wine grapes, but if you’re looking for those ingredients in your wine you’re a braver man than me. Funnily enough, the one time I had dinner with Steve and Deborah De Long, the founders of the Wine Century Club, we ordered what may have been my first full bottle of Grüner and I wasn’t blown away; its bracing steeliness and relatively muted fruit makes it one of those difficult wines to fall for. Once you get to know it though – like a great Riesling, and much more approachably so than a Gewürztraminer – you get to appreciate its individuality. And it is, certainly, a fine wine with a wide variety of food. No longer the most obscure of white grapes, this is, nonetheless, the first time I’ve written about it at iJamming!


Regular readers might now know how highly I rate the Chateau Musar flagship red wine, so much so that I’m always tempted to buy anything with the Musar name attached – including this $13 bottle of white wine at Spirit of 76 on the Jersey Shore. The label boasted that it was exclusively comprised of the Lebanese grape Obaideh, apparently an (the?) ancestor of Chardonnay – though you wouldn’t know it from the wine which, in true Musar style, was not released to the public until four years after vintage. A golden color, it had a candied, nutty nose that hinted at oxidization. (Musar calls that bottle ageing.) And there was no acidity to speak of; in fact the wine was initially quite flabby. But give it time (baby), and it comes around: there’s nuts and cream in there and a fair amount of weight for a wine that, perversely, comes from a hot climate but measures only 11% alcohol. Then again, I noticed my wife give this a pretty wide berth and she drinks almost anything, including white zinfandel. Chalk it up to enthusiasm – both for any and every grape and for Musar’s inherent madness.


From ancient grapes to modern ones. St. Pepin was cooked up in a lab around 1970. It’s a hybrid comprised of Seyval Blanc – a grape I like very much – and a couple of other hybrids I barely know, and our friend James Bateman has planted it at his high altitude vineyard in Windham (the only person in New York State to do so, he believes), which makes sense, given that the grape is apparently winter resistant down to -25F. When he opened a bottle for tasting, I immediately got some of the apple aromas comparable to Riesling, the noble grape that also grows well in upstate New York. (And I see from St. Pepin’s Wikipedia entry that I was not wrong to do so.) Bateman asked me to imagine Viognier, however, and it’s true: on the palate there was definitely some of the perfumed weight of that adorable grape. And then, when I came back to it a night later, I noticed a hefty touch of grapefruit on the nose much like Seyval Blanc – and this before I knew of the grape’s parentage. In theory, any wine that conjures up notes of Riesling, Viognier, and Seyval Blanc should be an absolute winner, but St. Pepin remains a hybrid, and even at their best, hybrids tend to be two-dimensional; you never quite the elegance and finesse that puts a wine over the top. But for $15 or so, I recommend this, not just for its curiosity factor but for its ready drinkability. (I certainly liked it more than Windham’s sweetish La Crescent, itself a blend of St. Pepin and other hybrids. You can see that if you hang out long enough in the grape labs of Minnesota or Cornell University, you can get through 100 grapes without even approaching chardonnay!)


Another way to tot up 100 wine grapes is to work your way through Italian wines. (Vermentino, Verdicchio and Vernaccia will net you three more, just in the Vs.) Isolia – or Izolia as it was called until recently – is native to Sicily where, despite its low yields, it was typically used for blending. In the wake of Nero d’Avola’s success, it’s now starting to be bottled on its own – and why not? It’s got the Italian white wine trademarks of zesty freshness, citrus, nuts and bitterness, but also some deep minerality, a round body, and a decent length. A fine food wine. Only $12 or so from Hudson Wine Merchants and worth every penny when you consider how much crappy Pinot Grigio goes for much the same price.


And why don’t we round off our off-the-map selection with another Italian white? Falanghina is a definite level above the 3Vs just referenced and, just a notch above Isolia too. This one, from a major Italian producer busy reviving semi-obscure grapes, comes in a light cold color and offers up banana on the nose, something you typically only find in the red grape gamay. I like bananas, so that’s fine by me. Once you get past that, you also notice floral touches and honeyed notes, something like a Roussanne – and that too is alright by my tastes. Low in acidity and lightly oily (again much like Roussanne), it’s got some definite heft, and rounds off with melons and some tropical fruits. This is the kind of white wine that, properly handled in the vineyard and the cellar, can match a Chardonnay as a full-bodied food wine. I loved it. The San Gregorio, from the Irpinia section of Southern Italy, retails for close to $20, but if you put it aside for the right night, you should find yourself well rewarded. And you’ll be that much closer to membership of the Wine Century club yourself. You can download an application here.

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1 Comment(s)

  1. baby jebus

    10 May, 2009 at 6:48 pm

    I’m surprised how few of them I haven’t tried. And they forgot Mencia, Mondeuse (though its synonym Refosco is included) and Chambourcin, to name but three not especially obscure varieties. And Romorantin. And try Moutard’s 6 Cepages champagne and you’ll get two more obscurities.
    Fun though- if I could get the form to work I’d join.

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