© Cedric Angeles
Here in the U.S. of A., we drink a lot of Chardonnay—over 53 million cases of it from California alone. Cabernet Sauvignon, too; we love the stuff. Merlot, Pinot, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, bottle after bottle of those, too. And that's all well and good. But there are thousands of different wine grapes out there in the world, and with all that abundance, why not take a flier on an oddball but tasty option? Here are five lesser-known but nifty varieties to look for.
Torrontés. Possibly because Malbec has been such a wild success story, Argentina’s signature white grape has gotten much less attention. Yet it’s delightful (and affordable): flamboyantly floral and citrusy at once, it’s at its best from the high-altitude Salta region, where altitude and cooler temperatures keep it crisp, but there are some fine versions from Mendoza, too. A few brands to look for: Crios de Susanna Balbo, Colome, Michel Torino’s Don David bottling, and Notro.
Furmint. Hungary’s primary white variety, and the grape behind the great sweet wines of Tokaji, Furmint also makes impressive dry wines—all herbs and minerals, with zingy acidity. Plus, you can walk around with a glass of it, and say to your friends, “Hey, look, I’ve got a glass of fermented Furmint!” They will think you’re really cool. Trust me. Brands to hunt down: Hetszolo, Royal Tokaji Wine Company, ChateauPajzos, Kiralyudvar, Dobogo, Heidi Schrock (she’s actually in Austria, but what the heck).
Mencia. A fragrant, medium-bodied, often violet-scented red grape, Mencia grows the northwestern Spanish regions of Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra, where it clings to the steep hillside slopes with the tenacity of a cat on a screen door (well, at least my cat, when I was a kid, who used to climb up the screen door to eye level and yowl when he wanted to be let in). Producers to seek out: Descendientes de Jose Palacios, Triton, Vinos Valtuille, Dominio de Bibei, D. Ventura, Pittacum.
Agiorgitiko. Or, if you’d rather, St. George, which is the English translation—it’s a lot easier to pronounce. Either way, this Greek grape makes full-bodied, spicy reds that go very well with big winter stews, roast legs of lamb, whole barbecued moose, that sort of thing. (It also makes very good rosé, if you’re already thinking about summer.) And, just so you know, it’s pronounced ah-yor-YEE-ti-ko. There are a number of good bottlings out there, among them those from Gaia, Palivou, Boutari, Tselepos. It’s also worth noting that Greek wines are sometimes labeled regionally rather than by grape variety—any red labeled as “Nemea” will be made from Agiorgitiko.
Blaufrankisch. It’s Austrian, it’s red, it’s crisply spicy and/or peppery, it’s fun. It just sounds sort of daunting. So if you can bypass the dour Germanic sound of the name, this is a tasty, medium-bodied red that’s great with a huge range of foods (Suggested marketing tagline for the Austrian wine authorities: “Blaufrankisch! It’s not just for schnitzel anymore!”). Look for: Moric, Weninger, Paul Achs, Triebaumer, and Zantho (which is appealingly inexpensive).