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Tongue-Tied About the World's Best Wine Values

Lettie Teague attempts to pronounce words like Xinomavro and Zweigelt as she explores the new vogue for obscure wines and searches for the best (and most underpriced) bottles.

As someone who knows only a dozen words of Spanish and Italian and studied French for four years to little effect, I'm proud to say my linguistic competence is considerably greater when it comes to pronouncing the names of obscure foreign grapes. And I've had a lot of practice lately browsing wine store shelves and reading restaurant wine lists where the offerings now often include Mencía and Moschofilero, not to mention vowel-dense selections such as Aglianico and Agiorghitiko.

I've never encountered as many obscure grape varieties as I have in the past several months. Some of this may be attributable to sommeliers exerting esoteric one-upmanship, but it's also because obscure grapes are experiencing a bit of a renaissance. Producers are eschewing global stalwarts like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon to concentrate on native varieties such as Limnio and Xinomavro from Greece and Kékfrankos from Hungary.

The reward for learning these names isn't limited to linguistic satisfaction but, more often than not, money saved. My rule of thumb is that the harder the name of a wine is to pronounce, the cheaper it's likely to be. For example, a terrific Moschofilero from the Peloponnese in Greece rarely costs more than $16 a bottle. Compare this with a great Merlot with an easy-to-say name like Pétrus, which costs a hundred times more.

There is, however, a steep learning curve for most people when it comes to such grapes. "A lot of our customers still need to have Vermentino explained to them, let alone a grape like Asprinio," said Bob Franco, sommelier at the Manhattan restaurant i Trulli, whose all-Italian list includes both of those white grapes and even more obscure ones.

But it seems that many Americans are still willing to experiment with such esoterica. "The Americans drink wines made from Moschofilero and Assyrtiko, while the Greeks prefer Greek Chardonnay and Merlot," says Stellios Boutaris, whose family was one of the first in Greece to grow international varieties alongside native grapes.

I caught up with Boutaris at the London wine fair, where I was surprised to see a large contingent of Greek winemakers—and consequently tasted a lot of Greek wines. I had already tried several made by Boutaris's winery, Kir-Yianni (Boutaris's father founded it 10 years ago after splitting with his famous family). I didn't try a single Greek Chardonnay at the fair, though I did have a few lovely whites made from the Moschofilero grape (much like a dry Muscat), as well as some richer whites made from the Assyrtiko grape (high-acid, with a minerally finish, these reminded me a little of Grüner Veltliner). One of the most impressive Greek wines that I tasted was a lush red made from the Agiorghitiko (or St. George) grape. "You pronounced that very well," Boutaris noted when I said the name aloud. (He didn't realize how much practice I'd had.)

No grapes are harder to pronounce than those grown in Greece. Maybe it's a matter of so many vowels—Greek wines must have more vowels than wines from anywhere else in the world. I've wondered if this came up in conversation when Greece joined the European Union. I imagined the negotiations by Greek government officials: "We'll accept the same currency as everyone else, but no one can have more vowels in their grape names than we do."

These obscure wines are mostly good values, but I wondered, how many of them are actually good? I decided to stage an informal tasting of my own to find out. I pulled together a fairly broad selection of a few dozen wines that included choices from Italy, Greece, Austria, Spain, Hungary and South Africa. I even threw in some California wines made from the now-obscure Charbono grape.

The Greek and Italian wines accounted for most of the best bottles in my tastings (although I did like a simple white from Torres in Spain). In fact, I could have stopped with the Moschofileros and called the entire endeavor a triumph. The Moschofileros I tasted were so uniformly cheap and delicious that I'm certain this grape could be the next Pinot Grigio if only it were easier to pronounce. (Perhaps, just as Cabernet Sauvignon morphed into the casual "Cab," Moschofilero might one day become the familiar "Mosc"?) Among the six Moschofileros that I tasted were two standouts: the 2005 from Antonopoulos Vineyards and the 2005 from Tselepos, both less than $17 a bottle.

Another impressive white bargain was a wine called Ramì, a Sicilian blend of Inzolia and Grecanico made by the COS winery. Possessed of an attractively floral nose and a dry, zingy finish, it was around $20 a bottle. The only downside to it, in fact, was the packaging: an ugly squat bottle that put me in mind of Mateus. Indeed, packaging doesn't seem to be the strong suit of most makers of obscure varietal wines, as I encountered quite a few garish or simply amateurish labels—like the Mjzzu Blau & Blau from star Italian producer Silvio Jermann. The purple label was rather off-putting despite the added decoration of a winsome terrier named Sylvio. But the wine, Blaufränkisch blended with Blauburgunder, was a soft, spicy red that put me in mind of Syrah—an homage, said the back label, to Jermann's Austrian roots.

Though made in Italy from Austrian varieties, the Mjzzu Blau & Blau was better than any of the native Austrian reds I tried. I didn't try one that rose above "drinkable" and there were quite a few that fell far below. (Austrian wine, I decided, should always be white—preferably Riesling or Grüner Veltliner.)

The Hungarian wines I tried were mostly mediocre, with two exceptions: a Kékfrankos from Takler, whose Zinfandel-like Noir Gold bottling was soft and delicious, and a chewy Villány Zweigelt from Vylyan. The most unimpressive wine of my tasting, however, was Pinotage.

Created by a South African professor in 1925, Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut. The result is a truly distinct wine that its fans call rustic and others (like me) call feral—and worse. And yet Pinotage is gaining in popularity not only among South Africa's vintners but apparently among American wine drinkers, too.

I did try very hard to find a Pinotage that was likable. But seven bottles later, the project seemed doomed. The best I could do was to find a wine that didn't overtly offend: the 2004 Pinotage from Southern Right winery (which even brags of its dedication to the grape). The wine had the same funky aromas as all of the Pinotages I tried, one I found could only be described as smelling like animal pelt, but at least it had some nice, ripe fruit in the nose and a reasonable price tag ($20).

And yet I still love obscure grapes, not only because they can offer great value but also because they are a source of national pride. After all, there's much to be said for winemakers willing to tie their fortunes to a tongue-twisting grape like Kékfrankos rather than Merlot, a grape everyone knows. And so I will keep drinking obscure wines from all over the world. Except South Africa, that is. I'll be drinking its (excellent) Sauvignon Blancs instead.

Comments? E-mail Lettie Teague at winematters@aexp.com.

Published July 2006
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